Off-leash dog walkers fight plan for San Francisco natural areas

Westie dog at dog park

Photo: Flickr user Randy Son of Robert

Advocates of off-leash dog walking are getting ready for a hearing Thursday afternoon about a plan that could completely eliminate a dog play area at Lake Merced, cut other off-leash areas in the city — and help preserve some of the last remnants of San Francisco’s natural landscape.

Sally Stephens of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group has been emailing members asking them to speak out against the city’s Natural Areas Program, telling them in one message that the NAP “wants to restrict where people with dogs can walk with their dogs, claiming impacts from dogs on native plants and wildlife.”

The San Francisco Planning Commission is holding a hearing on a draft environmental-impact report for the Significant Natural Resources Area Management Plan at its regular meeting Thursday at noon. The EIR studied the potential effects of the management plan, which is intended to guide the maintenance of 32 designated natural areas, including Lake Merced, Pine Lake Park and the area sometimes called “Parcel 4” at the west end of Balboa Street in the Richmond District.

The management plan would close the lightly used off-leash area at Lake Merced, a plot of about five acres on a bluff on the lake’s northern shore between about Middlefield Drive and Everglade Drive. An off-leash area in Pine Lake park adjacent to Stern Grove would not be changed under the plan, and there is no off-leash area in Parcel 4.

While Stephens says the Lake Merced area isn’t used much, the management plan calls for eliminating just more than 20 percent of dog play areas citywide. And cuts to dog play areas now contemplated under the SNRAMP may be followed by more, says Stephens, if nature preservationists succeed in removing off-leash access in favor of what she calls “plant museums.”

“The closures of Lake Merced and the reductions [at other parks] are just the begnining,” Stephens said.

When Peter Brastow talks about preserving San Francisco’s remaining natural areas and restoring others, he almost sounds like someone explaining why it’s important to preserve the Golden Gate Bridge or the Statue of Liberty.

“These are the precious remnants of the natural landscape of San Francisco. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” said Brastow, who heads Nature in the City, an organization dedicated to preserving San Francisco’s wildlife habitats.

He said that although people don’t always think about the city ‘s natural areas, once they realize how little is left they’re usually sympathetic to the idea of preserving it.

“We have important biodiversity right in our own neighborhood, and it’s just as worth saving as the rainforests in Brazil and Africa,” said Brastow.

Brastow said that the dog play area at Lake Merced — an area often called “the mesa” — is “a relatively rare upland habitat within the Lake Merced environment.”

While Stephens and Brastow might be expected to disagree about the impact of dogs on wildlife and natural areas, they both also acknowledged some agreement with the other’s viewpoint.

Stephens said she understands that there are some small areas that represent relatively undisturbed examples of rare natural habitats: “Those probably should be protected.”

And Brastow said, “We recognize there’s a huge need for off-leash dog walking. … We certainly recognize that for the sake of the impact on natural areas, there should be more [dog play areas].”

But Stephens said the City has effectively stymied the creation of new off-leash areas for years by deciding to delay them until a study of the need could be done  — and then never doing the study. So although the SNRAMP first proposed to replace the mesa off-leash area with a new one elsewhere, now the only choices are to keep it or eliminate iit.

The Planning Commission meeting starts at noon in Room 400 at City Hall. The EIR hearing is Item 13 on the commission agenda. San Francisco Planning Commission meetings usually are carried on Comcast Cable Channel 78 and webcast through SFGTV.

The Planning Commission will accept comments on the SNRAMP environmental report until Oct. 17.

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  1. The deadline for written comments has been extended to October 31, 2011. If you want more information about the herbicides used by the so-called Natural Areas Program, please visit the Save Sutro website: If you want more information about the tree destruction and lack of success of these “restorations” after 15 years of effort, please visit the Million Trees website:

    It is not true that the so-called “natural aeras” are remnants of native plants. There were no native plants in most of the 1,080 acres that were claimed by the Natural Areas empire over 15 years ago. After 15 years of effort, there are still few native plants in most of them.

    Visit the “natural area” at the corner of Balboa and the Great Highway for a sample of these projects. It was the former home of Playland by the beach. It had buildings on it since the 1860s. When it was dug up to put a sewer pipe under it it was claimed as a “natural area”. Sand had to be trucked in. Then dune plants were planted on dunes created by bulldozers. It’s fenced and people are restricted to a boardwalk. Take a look at it. Do you think you got your money’s worth?

  2. Driving dog owners out of the city to a suburban lifestyle does not protect the environment.

  3. The Mesa’s exotic species include about 200 non-native eucalyptus trees.

    Dog’s are not destroying the environment.The planners are, and how will this jibe when the new Park Merced complex is permitted and adds tons of dog owners to the area.

    Stop trying to tell me where I can walk my dog.

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