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'Don't Fence Us Out,' Dog Owners Say in Lawsuit Against U.S.

Courts: People who walk their pets accuse Park Service of closing off a San Francisco cliff site to protect swallows without sufficient public comment.

May 07, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Ann Farrow and her poodle had taken their long afternoon walks inside Ft. Funston, the seaside San Francisco park with its breathtaking ocean views and well-trodden dog paths.

Not long ago, though, Farrow and other members of the area's tightknit dog-walking community were surprised to find that federal park officials had fenced off their favorite section of the 250-acre park without warning. The agency had made the move to protect the cliff-side nesting grounds of a migratory bird called the bank swallow.

"We were less offended with what they did [than by] how they did it," said Farrow, newsletter editor for the 650-member Ft. Funston Dog Walkers Assn. "The park disregarded us entirely, as if park users have no standing. The public be damned--that seems to be their motto."

So the dog walkers sued the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, contending that federal officials had ignored the process of seeking the necessary public comment for their project. The lawsuit also says the National Park Service might have broken the law by purposely keeping its plans under wraps.

The suit highlights the often competing interests at California parks such as 40-year-old Ft. Funston.

On one side are bird activists seeking to protect the bank swallows and park officials attempting to block wayward walkers from cliffs where the birds nest between April and August.

On the other side are the dog owners, with whom a federal judge recently sided.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said that the Park Service violated its own rules when it put up the fence and that park officials should have solicited public comment before taking any action.

In a 30-page ruling--part of a legal battle that could still go to trial--Alsup said park officials misled pet owners, trying to keep secret their plan because they knew it would be controversial.

Evidence showed an intent on the part of park officials "to railroad through the closure, to maintain secrecy, to unleash the fencing with lightning speed and to establish a fait accompli," the judge said.

He ordered the area to be reopened in August after the swallows leave their nests in the park. But he stopped short of requiring park officials to seek public input before sealing the area when the swallows return next April.

Advocates for the birds say the judge's report protects the swallows--for now.

"This is a three-sided dispute," said Larry Silver, an attorney for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. "The Audubon Society wants to ensure the birds are protected, and the park wants to carry that out. The dog owners say they have a right to walk their dogs there."

Park Service officials declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.

In his April 26 decision, Alsup cited Park Service e-mails that included such comments as "We don't want this to blow up in our faces. . . . I want to keep the meeting with dog reps as small as possible. Otherwise we're asking for them to organize their constituency. Why should we provide a forum for them to beat us up?"

Silver said that although bird advocates can't condone the Park Service tactics, they support the idea of the new fences.

"If the Park Service violated public process, they did it because they didn't want to deal with the dog owners," he said. "The park officials just consider them to be impossible to deal with."

Dog owners say the area has been open to unleashed pets since 1961, when it was part of Ft. Mason, an Army installation.

"The Park Service has gotten arrogant over time, and they've forgotten who they serve," said Linda McKay, a dog owner who joined the lawsuit. "They've got this idiotic bunker mentality, where the people who use the park are perceived as the enemy. The lawsuit exposes them in a way they'd rather not be seen."

For now, Farrow said she and her poodle, Keli, will avoid the cliffs, which sit in San Francisco's southwest corner. But she said pet owners may yet emerge as top dog with a greater voice in how the park is used.

"What the park people did was sneaky and covert," she said. "And the judge is saying everyone has to follow the rules, even the government."

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