When the Salt Lake Valley’s dog-owning community barks, politicians notice. The community’s most recent battle over new off-leash restrictions at Parley’s Historic Nature Park, also known as Tanner Park, is activating a grass-roots opposition movement that collected more than 2,100 members on Facebook. That’s nearly as many Facebook fans as the Utah Democratic Party has. Their organizational skills and adamancy is noted even by their opponents—as is their hunger for more off-leash parks, a zeal that may foretell future battles over Salt Lake County’s dwindling open space.
At the time of publication, the Salt Lake City Council had not yet voted on a final plan for Parley’s park(see the blog update for the results), which currently is almost entirely open to off-leash use across more than 60 acres (how much of the varied terrain is “usable” space depends on who you ask), but city council straw polls suggest some acres will be made off-limits to dogs. In the words of Utah Environmental Congress executive director Jake Schipaanboord, however, “they’re going to get quite a big area” for off-leash use.
Any cut in off-leash acreage—especially if it’s not replaced in another park—is unwelcome to many off-leash advocates. Indeed, far from wanting to compromise on restrictions, they’re pushing for expansions, setting the stage for similar battles in the future.
Polly Hart, the director of Millcreek FIDOS (Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Spaces), joined FIDOS in 2001, just after its inception. At the time, the U.S. Forest Service was considering requiring dog leashes in Millcreek Canyon, but was swayed by the dog lovers. As a result, off-leash dogs are allowed on canyon trails on odd-numbered days. “It is generally Forest Service policy throughout the nation to only allow dogs on leash,” Hart says, “but at [Salt Lake County’s] behest, they were allowing dogs off leash. Hart notes that as far back as 2001, “we had 2,000 people on our e-mail list.”
Once they won that battle, the group’s active membership receded, but the most active members didn’t stop lobbying. Around 2005, FIDOS pushed Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson’s administration to make legal the off-leash activities Hart says were already happening at Parley’s park. A two-year trial period ended in 2007, when the city council approved formal off-leash rules for Parley’s with the condition that the mayor’s office compose a formal long-term-maintenance plan. That plan was completed earlier this year by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, whose consultants proposed restricting off-leash use to two fenced areas and one trail, comprising 12 acres. The mayor’s priorities are protecting riparian habitat, improving water quality and preventing erosion—while leaving some space for off-leash use. The dog people exploded.
Dog trainer Roxanne Ball, of Sandy, is not a member of FIDOS but was involved in the opposition to the new restrictions. “It’s a tight community,” she says. “You can talk to them to say ‘in order to keep this park, this is what we need to do, we need to raise this money’ … and I can guarantee you that a lot of people will be there, not even just from FIDOS.”
That’s what led to jam-packed city council meetings in which representatives of institutional environmental groups—including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Utah Environmental Congress—were far outnumbered by the dog advocates.
The preservationists argue that wild bird habitat is rare, and Parley’s Park should be a safe landing pad. But the dog owners see the land scarcity issue in another way. Can’t dog owners have at least one entire park to run free with their pooch?
“I grew up in this area. … As the valley has developed, there have been less and less places to take your dogs [off-leash],” Parley’s park user Tani Gamble says. “So this place has become more busy.”
Former Salt Lake City planning director Stephen Goldsmith, who is now an associate professor at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture & Planning, points out, however, that you don’t need an off-leash area to enjoy the benefits of owning a dog. He says that as Salt Lake County’s population continues to climb—and open space becomes scarcer—dog owners will need to adjust behaviors and compromise. “Salt Lake City metro area now has about 1.2 million [people] … if that trend is destiny, we’ll have several million more. This may be an outdoor mecca, but we’re still going to be growing.” In Manhattan’s Central Park, for example, dogs can be off leash only during certain hours, Goldsmith says. “Those kinds of civilized discussions and negotiations are what we will find ourselves addressing more and more in our community.”
Ball predicts that more, not less, access for off-leash space is in the Salt Lake County’s future. “[Dog owners] won’t take that. You don’t move to the city next to the mountains and expect to walk on sidewalks,” she says. “There’s a reason people live here and there’s a reason people move here.”
Hart, herself a Manhattan transplant to Salt Lake City, agrees. “I have five friends who moved to the Canyon Rim neighborhood in the last two years to be closer to [Parley’s park]. … I used to live in Manhattan. … I came here with no job because I wanted a better quality of life, and I wanted to be able to have a dog and recreate with it—not on a sidewalk.”
Ball says there is no replacement for wide-open, off-leash play with dogs. Leashes and fenced-in play pens, she says, both promote aggressive behavior.
Battles will continue. Ball has a list of nearly a half-dozen areas she has her sights set on for new off-leash areas, including Sandy’s Dimple Dell Park and Big Cottonwood Park on 4500 South and 1300 East. Hart thinks dog owners may soon demand that the Bonneville Shoreline be designated off leash, saying off-leash dog users—though in violation of the law—outnumber other user groups on the trail.
If politicians get in their way, the dog owners show their teeth. Salt Lake City resident Brent Anderson issued a threat on Facebook to city council members that they may face a slate of dog-friendly candidates if they stray too far from the FIDOS line. “Betrayed,” is how Hart, who volunteered on Becker’s various political campaigns for 10 years, feels about the restrictions he proposed. “He came to our candidate forum, and he gave all the right answers, and we endorsed him,” she says. “I am bitter because this administration has done a 180-degree turn from what was promised to a pretty big user group.”
Nevertheless, Becker’s spokeswoman, Lisa Harrison-Smith, says Becker may veto the city council’s plan if it doesn’t adequately protect the riparian habitat. She says maintaining the roughly 12 acres of off-leash dog spaces in Salt Lake City—more than all the official off-leash dog acres in the county, excluding Parley’s and Millcreek Canyon—shows the mayor’s commitment to off-leash areas.
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