We should not be asked to choose between conservation and recreation as if they are mutually exclusive. Both are essential to our appreciation of the area’s natural environment, and are at the heart of the motivation for creating urban areas like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). While many people who enjoy open spaces with their dogs also appreciate the beauty of these natural areas, they may not be aware of the unique ecology that makes these areas so special. Eco-Dog encourages you to learn about local ecology so that you and your dog can help to protect and preserve these valuable public spaces.
Environmentalism and Ecology
Environmentalists have a long tradition of enjoying the outdoors with their dogs. John Muir wrote about exploring Alaska with Stickeen, his “perfect wonder of a dog” (that's Muir and Stickeen above left). Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring triggered the environmental movement, adored her dogs and even kept a “Just Dogs” ledger. She also described exploring the Pennsylvania hills with her dog as one of her favorite activities.
However, much has changed since Muir, Carson, and their dogs enjoyed the great outdoors. As people and research reacted to the urbanization of America, the importance of open spaces for the health and wellbeing of people and animals has emerged as integral to both ecology and environmentalism.
Environmentalism is an advocacy movement focused on protecting and preserving the natural environment. Environmentalists are also advocates for the health of all species, the responsible stewardship of natural resources, and the prevention of species extinction.
Ecology, the scientific study of the interactions among plants and animals and the physical environment, focuses on living communities and provides a necessary scientific foundation for environmentalism. In contrast to the advocacy and activism of environmentalism, ecology is a science based in objectivity, systematic measurement, and evidenced-based conclusions.
Together, environmentalism and ecology, analogous to heart and mind, can address responsible and sustainable recreation for people and their dogs.
Conserving Urban Recreation
In 1916, the National Park Service was established with the National Park Service Organic Act, which noted that the purpose of the parks is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), a unit of the National Park System, was established in 1972 as part of the “Parks to the People” movement. In contrast to creating a national park situated in the wilderness, Congress established a national recreation area in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to more than 4.5 million people.
The intent of the Congress was eloquently described as capitalizing “on the availability of this important, unequaled resource in the San Francisco region by establishing a new national urban recreation area which will concentrate on serving the outdoor recreation needs of the people of the metropolitan region. As an urban recreation area, it must relate to the desires and interests of the people, but it must, at the same time, be managed in a manner which will protect it for future generations.” Furthermore, the stated objective was to “assure the preservation of the open spaces presently prevailing within the proposed recreation area, to provide public access along the waterfront, and to expand to the maximum extent possible the outdoor recreation opportunities available in this region.” As an example, the Congressional report on the GGNRA noted that areas in the city “will satisfy the interests of those who choose to fly kites, sunbathe, walk their dogs, or just idly watch the action along the bay.” (House Report No. 92-1391, Sept. 12, 1972; Senate Report No. 92-1271, Oct. 5, 1972)
Plants and Animals in the GGNRA
Despite the population density of the Bay Area, people and their dogs are successfully coexisting in the GGNRA with more than 1,200 species of plants and animals. Plant and animal inventories indicate that the GGNRA is home to 886 species of plants, 53 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians, in addition to fish and insect species. The area’s mild Mediterranean climate and a variety of unique natural features and ecosystems, including beaches, scrublands, forests, and streams, allows for the support of a diverse ecosystem. This rich natural variety includes both native species, such as California poppies that existed here prior to European contact, and naturalized species, such as the Monterey Pine that was introduced from elsewhere.
To thrive, plants and animals (including people) require both a habitat and a niche within an ecosystem.
Habitat supports the various physical and social needs of each species, including food, water, shelter (refuge from the elements and predators), reproduction, migration, play, education, and care for family and community. Species that are generalists can thrive in diverse conditions by adapting to a variety of habitats and food sources. For example, coyotes, White-crowned Sparrows, Anise Swallowtail butterflies, and other species thrive in both the wilderness and city parks. In contrast, some species are specialists that require a specific food source or distinct surroundings. For example, the Mission Blue Butterfly, an endangered species, not only requires its favorite food, the silver-leaf lupine, but also native ants in order to thrive. The ants tend to and protect Mission Blue Caterpillars from predation. In return, the caterpillar produces a sweet liquid that is consumed by the ants. Argentine ants, the common “household” ant, compete with native ants for habitat, but they aren’t as effective at tending to Mission Blue Caterpillars. Without native ants, the caterpillars are at risk. In addition to the absence of native ants, parasitic wasps and rodents also threaten the caterpillars’ survival.
Although most species in the GGNRA are thriving, some are not. Dozens of types of plants and animals have a federally protected status that classifies them as Endangered, Threatened, or a Species of Concern. The Endangered Species Act takes protective measures by having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service create a Recovery Plan and designating Critical Habitats, areas managed for recovery of the population.
Over half of North American avian species and nearly one third of California's plant species are found in the GGNRA. 25 federally threatened and endangered species exist within lands that the Park Service manages, and a total of 36 threatened and endangered species exist within GGNRA’s legislative boundaries.
Western Snowy Plovers and Bank Swallows
The major threat to most protected species is habitat loss, but other common documented threats include predatory and competitive species. For example, major threats to the federally threatened Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) are coastal development and predatory birds such as hawks, ravens, and gulls. In 2009, a breeding habitat in the San Francisco South Bay was caring for 147 adult Snowy Plovers. Among this group, 96 of the nests had a successful hatching of eggs, while 51, almost a third, were unsuccessful due to predation.
Bank Swallows (Riparia riparia), also known as sand martins, are common worldwide. However, in California the population has declined by more than 50%, which earned them a spot on the state’s threatened species list. The name Riparia riparia refers to the swallows’ riverbank nesting habitat, which includes the Sacramento Valley. There are also two coastal populations located at Fort Funston and Ana Nuevo. Bank swallows are at Fort Funston April through August, nesting in deep burrows dug into the steep vertical cliffs. The California Department of Fish and Game has identified bank stabilization projects, riverbank erosion and flood control projects in the Sacramento Valley, as the major threat to the Bank Swallow. Threats at habitats such as Fort Funston include predatory birds, such as hawks and ravens. Prolonged human presence, such as inscribing graffiti on the cliff face, sitting at the cliff’s edge, or disturbances such as fireworks on the beach have been shown to temporarily alter the activity of Bank Swallows entering and leaving their burrows.
Note: The GGNRA’s 1979 Pet Policy off-leash areas do not include any Critical Habitats. However, the GGNRA have issued regulations that restrict off-leash recreation in areas of Ocean Beach and Crissy Field (not nesting sites) for the Western Snowy Plover, and areas of Fort Funston for the Bank Swallow.
Learn about local enviromental hazards for people and pets (PDF).