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The Nature of Politics 

Dog owners, compliant pols viciously distort a reasonable attempt to preserve our environmental legacy

Wednesday, Jul 24 2002
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Retired Golden Gate Park gardener Jake Sigg parks his decades-old Volkswagen Beetle at the end of a cul-de-sac halfway up Mount Davidson, steps slowly onto the street, and gives me a friendly, if halting, handshake. Sigg is a loquacious man by nature. But he's laconic and a bit tentative this morning as we head from a housing subdivision up a dusty trail toward Mount Davidson's eastern slope, where we've planned a morning nature walk so I can learn about native plants.

Sigg is the conservation chairman of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. During the past couple of months, Sigg, his environmentalist fellow travelers, and a few disparate patches of huckleberry, elderberry, serviceberry, snowberry, coffee berry, ocean spray, bush monkey flower, California fescue, Nootka reed grass, woodland strawberry, beach strawberry, Indian paintbrush, coast sunflower, footsteps-of-spring, farewell-to-spring, Douglas iris, coast iris, Johnny-jump-ups (a type of violet), mission bells (a lily), and biscuit root have become objects of citywide scorn.

Native plant preservationists were, until recently, an unnoticed group of literal-minded ecologists and outdoor-loving youth volunteers who spent their weekends clearing blackberry bushes. Recently they've found themselves underneath a snarling political dog pile.

In newspaper editorials, during a recent six-hour-long Board of Supervisors committee meeting, and at a debate last week at the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods, the city's native plants have been called worthless grass and shrubs. The would-be protectors of native plants have been called worse: They've been characterized as anti-tree, anti-pet, anti-human being. Supervisor Leland Yee even went so far as to write an editorial in The Independent comparing these urban naturalists to racists and xenophobes.

"How many of us are '"invasive exotics' who have taken root in the San Francisco soil, have thrived and flourished here, and now contribute to the diversity of the wonderful mix that constitutes present-day San Francisco?" wrote Yee.


The hostility seemed odd, given that Sigg and his fellow preservationists are a quiet group with a wholesome-seeming hobby. Each weekend a handful of park employees and a few dozen volunteers, many of them kids, gather up shovels, hoes, and scythes to clear invasive weeds from the few plots of San Francisco land where native ecosystems remain. On the face of it, the plant preservationists appeared to be acting on the environmentalist creed: Biodiversity is important; it's bad to drive species to extinction; sometimes it's necessary to make sacrifices to preserve natural balance.

A tiny unit of the city's Recreation and Park Department, the Natural Areas Program did its work -- preserving native ecosystems on public lands -- largely unnoticed from its inception in 1991 until last year. Then, outraged by two quite reasonable changes in land-use policy, the dog owners attacked.

The first land-use change came from the National Park Service. Citing a need to protect the snowy plover, an endangered bird, the service began enforcing a ban on unleashed pets -- consistent with systemwide policy -- at Fort Funston and Crissy Field. Although long used by dog walkers as the equivalent of city parks, both areas are part of the federal Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Then, in May, the city Recreation and Park Department announced a revised dog policy, specifying certain city parkland as "dog play areas," where dogs might run unleashed. Under the new policy, the Park Department would seek to build such play areas in every possible neighborhood; these areas would be enclosed, with benches, turf, trash cans, and lighting provided. Under the policy, dogs would have to be leashed in areas considered sensitive habitat for wildlife.

In short, Rec and Park formally established one of the most dog-friendly leash policies in urban America.

But for certain San Francisco dog owners, who had become accustomed over the years to allowing their pets to roam where they pleased, this was a declaration of war.

"The new dog policy makes all sensitive and critical areas off limits to dogs on- or off-leash -- nonnegotiable, period," says Steve Cockrell, an advertising professional who hosts a leashless-dog-walking advocacy Web site. The assertion is an exaggeration. Only a tiny portion of city-owned parkland is considered environmentally sensitive. And even that land is far from off limits to dogs: According to the policy, parts of some natural areas may require dog owners to use leashes. Others will require that dogs be under voice control. That's it.

In truth, the people involved with native plant preservation have hardly concerned themselves with dogs at all. Indeed, if the Natural Areas Program were eliminated tomorrow, it would have an unnoticeable impact on the average San Francisco dog's life.

But native plant enthusiasts made easy targets for the dog people to campaign against. For one thing, native plant restorationists already had two enemies: the so-called tree enthusiasts, who were angry that Natural Areas workers had cut down some trees to provide light for an endangered species of flower in the Presidio; and feral cat enthusiasts, who didn't like it when park workers trapped wild cats to protect park-dwelling California quail. These foes were small in number, but extremely vociferous and more than willing to join with the off-leash dog proponents.

After the changes in city and federal dog policy went into effect, the no-leash dog owners and their new allies phoned politicians, attended meetings en masse, and wrote scores of letters; there was even word that the leashless dog advocates might form a political action committee. Whatever else has happened, the new coalition has been very successful in vilifying native plant enthusiasts.

Earlier this month, supervisor and mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom hosted a six-hour-long committee hearing dedicated to lambasting the city's Natural Areas Program. Last week, Newsom and Yee attended a meeting of neighborhood groups, during which speakers labeled the city's nature preservation program "extremist" and "out of control."

Supervisor Mark Leno, meanwhile, postponed city authorization of a $250,000 state grant that would go toward helping preserve natural plant species in Glen Canyon Park -- after his office received anti-native plant calls from dog-walking activists. Recent television news segments have suggested the natural plant folks are arrogant extremists; newspaper columns have called them crazy tree killers.

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Matt Smith

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