The Leash They Could Do

news2 dogsDog owners and UCSC officials may not be so far apart on Long Marine Lab policy

Last month, dog owners who have been walking their pets for years at the beachfront Long Marine Laboratory grounds on the Westside rallied at a UCSC meeting in protest of a new no-dog policy set to begin in June.

The meeting sparked coverage in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, including an op-ed that suggested the two sides of this issue—dog owners who want a safe, picturesque place to walk and scientists concerned about their restoration efforts—are at irreconcilable odds. A closer examination, however, reveals the potential for compromise.

The regulation is a part of UCSC’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) for the Long Marine area, which includes a $54 million biology building and expansion of the mammal pools, and a new wing for the Center for Ocean Health. Construction of the building has already begun, and the no-domestic animal policy will be enforced using “student ambassadors” beginning June 1.

UCSC officials say that their restoration project for the surrounding habitat is on track, despite the fact that dogs have been present until this point; the main threat, they say, is that dog walkers too often ignore the property’s on-leash policy.

But dog walkers like Melissa Hart say it’s the first they’ve heard of it.

“Nobody’s ever really tried to say ‘OK, we need your dogs on leash so you can keep your privilege,’” says Hart. “By banning dogs, you kind of run the risk of skewing your population of dog walkers toward the people that really are willing to break the law and don’t give a damn about you.”

Hart walks her 12-year-old Labrador Retriever, Bella, at the Long Marine area because it’s one of the few places she feels safe walking alone.

An environmental scientist by trade, Hart was a land-use planner for the county of Santa Barbara, and has spent countless hours poring over UCSC’s Environmental Impact Report and LRDP. Even with her background, she says, the documents are a tough read, and the university should have been more vocal about the no-dog clause in their plan, which was approved in January 2009.

Hart and other members of the Long Marine Dog Walkers, who started a petition on, are asking that the university allow dogs in the area as long as they are on leashes.

“If you need evidence that dogs can coexist with your very admirable goals of building great research facilities and improving the habitat, you already have it and more,” she says. “They have a really successful record of having dogs on the property.”

That’s mostly true, says UCSC Institute of Marine Sciences Assistant Director and Long Marine manager, Steve Davenport. The problem is that owners let their dogs off leash around 50 percent of the time, by his estimate, and that wreaks havoc.

It’s hard enough without dogs to restore wetlands and recover them from land that has been farmed, say officials who are five years into a 20-year restoration plan.

“On this terrace, we had about 100,000 years of this native coastal prairie [plant] and then in the 1920s it got tilled and turned into a farm for the first time,” explains Davenport. “Now we are endeavoring to get something close to what it was that 100,000 years before the 1920s.”

Banning dogs wasn’t a quick or capricious decision, he adds.

“There’s a lot more to this than people see and understand, and in some respects maybe we probably haven’t done a good job in communicating what’s involved with being successful—even with good explanations, it’s hard to grasp.”

UCSC originally had 40 acres that started the marine lab and acquired 60 acres from Wells Fargo bank in 1999. The same year, Davenport and others began the Resource Management Plan, the precursor to the LRDP. They also made the decision to open the land to the public.

Elizabeth Howard, who is in charge of the Younger Lagoon Reserve, a protected area adjacent to the Long Marine labs, says that they have an obligation to maintain their grounds as a “living classroom” in order to produce accurate findings and maintain the integrity of the land.

“You can think of it as if you’re a chemist and you need a chemistry lab to do your research and your teaching—you wouldn’t have your dog running around your chemistry lab,” she says.

Off-leash dogs have been known to dig through areas where students have meticulously planted natural plants, they can transmit foreign diseases, and oftentimes owners just don’t pick up after their pets.

“One of our goals is not just diversity of native habitat sites, but it’s about creating those habitats for native wildlife—native birds, bobcats and coyotes,” says Howard. “We see dogs harassing wildlife, chasing birds, picking up lizards or snakes, chasing after rabbits.”

Although natural predators like coyotes and bobcats come through the area, they’re far fewer in numbers than “subsidized predators” like dogs, says Davenport. They come through a few times a year, compared to the hundreds of dogs that walk through in any given week.

“If there was a 100 percent compliance with people keeping their dogs on leash and staying on leash, it’d be a different picture,” says Davenport. “But people are just ignoring the idea.”

UCSC Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway said in a statement that more than 400 proposed revisions are currently being reviewed.

“I know that community members enjoy walking their dogs on the coastal campus, and can assure you that the Chancellor and I strive to be good local partners with the community, even when faced with tough policy decisions,” Galloway said.

The California Coastal Commission itself doesn’t require a no-dog policy, says Susan Craig of the Santa Cruz office. “We don’t usually see too many projects that say anything about dogs at all,” she says. However, the commission has backed the no-dog rule.

Ultimately, they all know what’s best for the reserve, says dog walker Hart, and cooperation is in everyone’s best interest.

“[The university] could use good will, they could use people being on board with their construction, because it’s going to be a long few years,” Hart says. “And why should a non-dog walker care? When the university gets to decide whether they let you know that they’re deciding to change their policy and decide who the stakeholders are—maybe it’s not you this time, but maybe it’s something you care about next time.”

PHOTO:  Without access to the Long Marine grounds, dog walkers say there will be few walking options in Santa Cruz. SARAH HIRSHLAND

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