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No Dogs Allowed

A looming change in land ownership at Tahoe Cross Country worries dog owners
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A possible land swap between California State Parks and the California Tahoe Conservancy has dog lovers on the North Shore up in arms. The land exchange, which could inadvertently hurt the already struggling Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area, also comes at a time when Placer County is strengthening its leash laws. Both these occurrences have some Tahoe residents questioning if blanket leash laws are right for rural mountain communities.

Since 2012, the California Tahoe Conservancy has been in discussion with State Parks to give its approximately 900-acre Dollar Property, which is part of the cross-country ski area in Tahoe City, to the adjacent Burton Creek State Park in order to consolidate land ownership in the Tahoe Basin. However, since State Parks does not allow dogs on trails except for designated dog trails — which are nonexistent in the 2,000-acre Burton Creek— and on fire roads, some local dog owners are furious that it would be illegal to walk their dogs on land they have been taking their dogs for years. If State Parks takes control of the Dollar Property, it would also outlaw skiing with dogs, which Tahoe Cross Country worries could adversely impact its pass sales since it offers a popular dog pass.

“I think it’s incredibly asinine,” said Jessica Runyon, a dog owner who lives off Old County Road and has been taking her border collie mix with her to run, mountain bike, walk, and ski the trails at the cross-country area for 35 years. “It would be devastating to people in the Highlands or my neighborhood because it’s the main place we walk our dogs.”

Laws of the Land

In 2012, the California State Legislature passed a statute requiring the conservancy to transfer the Dollar Property to State Parks as part of a larger exchange to streamline land management in the Tahoe Basin. Runyon wrote to the legislature about the consequences of banning dogs from the cross country area.

“I wrote and called to say, ‘Do you realize the impact of this decision?’” she said. “It’s not going to go over well with the community. No one is going to abide by that law.”

Similarly, Rebecca McFadden, who lives in the Highlands neighborhood and owns three labs, has written to both the conservancy and State Parks to voice her concerns.

“I feel like State Parks would place undue restrictions on property that is well used and well loved,” she said. “It would be a real loss for the whole community — people who live there, people who vacation there.”

State Parks follows California law, which requires dogs to be on a 6-foot leash in all areas except on private land, and only allows canines in “campgrounds, picnic areas, parking areas, roads, and structures,” according to the Control of Animals code. In Burton Creek, this means that dogs are only allowed on the 7.8 miles of fire roads. This is to protect both the environment and the public.

“Part of our mission is the protection of natural and cultural resources,” said Marilyn Linkem, California State Parks Sierra District superintendent.

“There are visitors who don’t want to interact with dogs. A lot of people are scared of dogs.”

Once land comes under State Parks jurisdiction, dog rules have to be enforced to be consistent with all other state parks. To change the law specific to one park would require a vote by the State Legislature or a decision by top officials in State Parks.

“State Parks belong to the people of California and there are a lot of people in California who don’t like dogs and believe they interfere with wildlife,” said a former State Parks official who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s our responsibility to manage for everyone.”

Another Blow to TXC?

State Parks and the conservancy held a meeting on Dec. 3 of last year to inform the public about the land exchange, but residents like Runyon and McFadden said the meeting was not well publicized and they found out about it too late to attend. According to Linkem, around 25 people showed up.

While a Nov. 26 press release about the meeting says the land transfer was expected to occur in January, six months later the transfer has still not occurred. Both State Parks and the conservancy say they are working out the details, but the conservancy admits that the dog issue, while not a primary cause of the delay, is a factor. The conservancy follows Placer County laws on its properties, requiring that all dogs be leashed.

“We have heard loudly from the public that they are very concerned that there could be a big impact if there is a change in ownership,” said Patrick Wright, California Tahoe Conservancy executive director. “We are well aware of the public issues over dogs and the impact any changes would have, and we are coming up with the solution that best serves the public.”

One possible solution, said Wright, is that only a portion of the Dollar Property is transferred to State Parks. This would make Tahoe Cross Country happy since the ski area sells around 150 dog passes a year. The cross-country area is barely surviving after four years of poor winters, which has contributed to a 60 percent drop in season pass purchases, and is currently in the midst of an $80,000 fundraising campaign to stay afloat.

“To lose the dog trail would mean a loss of revenue for us,” said Tahoe Cross Country Board President Jim Robbins. “We are trying to be survivors now. Pass sales have plummeted the last few years.”

Robbins has a right to be concerned. Loyal cross-country passholders like McFadden, who has had a dog pass for 15 years, said she would most likely not buy a pass this year if she can’t ski with her dog.

Downsides of Running Free

According to Wright, the deal should be worked out in the next several months. If State Parks takes control of the Dollar Property, however, some question how much it could enforce the no-dog policy, especially during the busy summer months when its resources are strained. Last July, State Parks took over the popular Kings Beach State Recreation Area from the North Tahoe Public Utility District, and it also manages D.L Bliss, Emerald Bay, and Sugar Pine Point state parks and the Tahoe City Recreation Area, among others.

“We patrol where there are the most visitors. With the busy summer season, there are tens of thousands of people at our campgrounds,” said Matt Green, the Sierra Gold Sector superintendent for State Parks. “Burton Creek is certainly not one of our highest priorities, especially in the summer time. We could have 100,000 people at our beaches, and one million in Sierra District parks.”

Placer County faces a similar problem. In 2011, it beefed up its 2002 leash laws to require all dogs to be on leash outside of their owner’s property or a dog park. Violators could be faced with a $300 to $1,000 fine.

“It’s important to protect the public and protect dogs from wildlife,” said Wesley Nicks, director of Placer County Environmental Health, Public Health, and Animal Services. “You could have a really friendly dog, but if a 60-pound friendly dog jumps on a 70-year-old and knocks them over, they could be traumatized.”

Placer County has received several complaints about dogs off-leash on the Squaw Valley bike path, and is putting up more signs along the trail to remind dog owners of the law, as well as providing poop bags. Nicks said the county is practicing “soft enforcement,” first advising dog owners about the rules if their dogs are not on a leash and even giving them inexpensive leashes; a second violation could bring a citation. With only two to three animal control officers patrolling all of the Placer County portions of Tahoe and Truckee, however, it will be difficult to enforce.

An incident in June highlights the importance of leash laws. A Tahoe City woman who asked to remain anonymous was hiking on the backside of Alpine Meadows when she and her black lab mix were attacked by two wolfdogs, who dragged the woman’s dog 40 feet down the hillside. The woman suffered multiple puncture bites while trying to defend her dog, and has filed a report with Placer County requesting a public hearing and investigation to determine further action against the owner of the wolfdogs. The ski area sits on U.S. Forest Service land, which does not have any dog rules of its own but instead follows county law. This was not the first time the owner of the wolfdogs has experienced problems. In 2012, his dogs attacked a pointer that was hiking on the trails behind downtown Tahoe City with his owners and their three young children. As a result of his injuries, the pointer had to be put down the next day.

Despite episodes like the one in June, it has long been a Tahoe tradition to let dogs roam free in the woods.

“I try to be very responsible [with my dogs in public], but when I get on trails I love to let my dogs run and play,” McFadden said. “It’s one of the real gifts of living in Tahoe.”

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Reader comments so far...

Mouse | Truckee
This is really a hot button with dog owners and lovers. The fact remains, no matter how "friendly" your dog is, they are unpredictable. They ARE animals. My family members have been bitten more than once by someone's "harmless" dog. I fully support the notion that dogs on public lands must be on a leash. If this land transfer takes place for the common good, then dog owners will have to get used to the idea that don't have free reign. I am personally tired of being accosted by dogs on public trails and stepping in their poop. I suppose we could have "dog only" trails and if someone wants to hike on that trail, well, the responsibility is on them. How could those "wolfdogs" get a second chance at attacking when they had already done such a thing? I don't think the leash laws are strict enough.

TC resident | Tahoe City
I want to make a couple of points. Dog owners are CA taxpayers too, and therefore a valid constituency. We should be able to enjoy State Parks properties with our dogs and have our considerations included just like any other CA resident and taxpayer - whether hiker, biker, young, old, parent, or dog lover. We are already effectively banned from nearly all of Tahoe's beaches, despite paying to create and support them. The dog owners who walk these trails are the ones picking up other folks trash and reporting dumped cars and fridges, so that it can remain pristine for all. As with all things, there are good and bad people. There is no excuse for owners of dogs known to be dangerous to other people and animals to let them run free - this is a people problem, not a dog problem. Whoever owns the wolf dogs in Alpine obviously needs to keep them behind a fence or on a leash, and Placer County should track that individual down. Dog owners do need to keep their poop off trails (and I do) - this is just common courtesy. Just as there is no excuse for hikers who are aggressive to other hikers, or mountain bike riders who refuse to slow down for foot traffic, there is no excuse for people with aggressive dogs to let them run free here. But let's not punish the 99% of dog owners who enjoy and protect this property every day - summer and winter - for then failures of a very few. Desolation Wilderness has a great sign as you enter it. Dogs must be under control. For the vast majority of Tahoe dog owners, their dogs are under control without having to be on a 6-foot leash. This is the way forward.

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June 14, 2018