My favorite time to walk my dog on Ocean Beach is during a negative low tide, when the ocean pulls back into itself and reveals a wide-open expanse of wet sand. You can walk south towards Fort Funston and basically go forever. It’s even better if it’s just after a rain, because then the beach is empty. Just me and the dog. I love it.
But that’s probably going to change.
In January of this year, the GGNRA released a proposal for a new Dog Management Plan. It laid out a series of recommendations for how to change the rules for dogs within San Francisco's national park zones, which include areas like Crissy Field, Fort Funston, and Ocean Beach. It’s complicated, controversial, and has pissed a lot of people off.
Here's what hits closest to home for me: The plan proposes closing down most of Ocean Beach to dogs.
The current rules allow dogs, but largely only on-leash. Dogs are allowed off-leash south of Sloat (by the zoo) and north of Stairwell 21 (near the Beach Chalet), which means that the on-leash rule applies to about 80% of the beach. Only in the summer — from May 15 through July 1 — are dogs allowed roam free on the whole beach. These rules are in place because Ocean Beach is home to a rare bird called the western snowy plover, which nests at the base of the dunes. Rogue dogs are considered a threat to the plovers, so they're required to stay on-leash while the birds are in town.
In reality, you'll always find dogs off-leash on Ocean Beach since there's minimal enforcement of the leash law. My dog, a 3 year-old bulldog, is one of these free-roaming pups and I walk him on Ocean Beach every day. He’s a slow mover, who often has trouble keeping up with me while I’m walking. Which is to say there’s no way he’s ever going to chase those birds. We mostly stay down near the water’s edge, away from where the plovers nest. When he's off-leash, I like to think we respect the plovers while making space for our own fun. I might be deluding myself here, but I’m comfortable with my logic.
But The Dog Management Plan doesn’t really care about my logic, and the “preferred alternative,” to use the language of the plan itself, aims to close down the beach to all dogs, on and off-leash, except for the area north of Stairwell 21. The main explanation for this policy is in protection of the plovers.
I kind of get it. I’ve seen dogs that are fanatical about chasing birds. They sprint around with their tongues out till their heads spin. But there are other threats to the plovers, too, like the crows, seagulls, hawks, horses, bikes, and the people that are on Ocean Beach. Dogs just become the easy scapegoat.
Many dog walkers are avid lovers of the beach, and act as responsible protectors of the coast. I regularly see a woman in the dunes who picks up trash while she walks her off-leash dog. She told me she picks up about 5 pounds of trash a day, and is out there 300 days a year. That’s close to a ton of trash a year that she cleans up. If you kick her dog off the beach, you probably kick her off the beach too. Along with her grassroots, personal beach clean-ups.
After the proposed changes were made public, there was a 3-month comment period, which was extended another 6 weeks, and the dog walkers of San Francisco united. There have been websites, Facebook groups, a march at Ocean Beach in protest and even “I have a dog and I vote” bumper stickers.
The comment period is now closed, so it’s just a matter of waiting to see what the GGNRA decides. It’s a federal agency, and even though the city’s Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 in opposition to the plan, there’s not much stopping the GGNRA from following through.
Which might mean the end of dog walking at Ocean Beach.
This bums me out, because there are few other dog parks that cast the same spell of magic like Ocean Beach does. The combination of the wind and the fog, the solitude and the wave watching, makes the place special for both for me and my dog.
So now, with each dog walk, I dread that we’re taking one step closer to it being our last. I hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. And all the while, I can’t help but wonder if the GGNRA realizes how much they will lose if they kick dogs and their human companions off Ocean Beach.
Mark Lukach is an Associate Editor at the Ocean Beach Bulletin.