"It's not a park, it's an ecological reserve!"
So intoned my friend Ross Griswold, who tracks bird behavior at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.
We ran into each other the other day on the trail and ended up lamenting the ever-increasing abuses by dog owners and bike riders in and around the wetlands.
The encroachment is getting bad to a point that you'd almost think the place had been officially declared a dog and bike park — and as usual, the offenders become indignant, dismissive and even violent when it is politely pointed out to them that what they are doing has deep, harmful ramifications. (I have been threatened numerous times for simply saying, "Are you aware that dogs are not allowed here? And that there are leash laws?")
I addressed this in several columns last year and received an abundance of feedback (99% positive), but in view of what I've noticed to be even greater numbers of offenders these days, it seemed like it might be worth a reprise of the topic.
Griswold's point is a great one — the wetlands area is not a park. It's a fragile, ecological house of cards that many people work hard to keep in balance — people like Kelly O'Reilly, an environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Game at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
"People's behavior is very disappointing," she told me. "I was raised to be respectful, so when someone starts yelling nasty, vicious things at me for gently letting them know the law, it's upsetting. It's great you love your pet, but there are so many other places in Huntington Beach to take your dog."
She wears a uniform, yet still gets ignored by the self-entitled. O'Reilly described to me a number of situations where dog-walkers and bike-riders have become abusive, in front of children and in front of parents — rare is the person who simply respects the law (or even apologizes for perhaps being unaware of the situation).
The ugly confrontation is the usual par for the course.
O'Reilly shared a fascinating scientific report with me. The introduction reads: "Conservation managers often ban dog walking from natural areas fearing that wildlife will see dogs as potential predators and abandon their natural habitats, resulting in outcry at the restricted access to public land. Arguments are passionate on both sides and debate has remained subjective and unresolved because experimental evidence of the ecological impacts of dog walking has been lacking. Here we show that dog walking in woodland leads to a 35% reduction in bird diversity and 41% reduction in abundance, both in areas where dog walking is common and where dogs are prohibited. These results argue against access by dog walkers to sensitive conservation areas."
Point being, the mere presence of a dog in a sensitive area like Bolsa Chica can affect the natural balance, even if it is on leash.
Given that polite, reasonable sense seems to fail with a certain type of person, O'Reilly organized for me eight reasons why the rules at Bolsa Chica (and other sensitive areas) should be respected at all times.
1. Wild birds and rabbits perceive domestic dogs and cats as predators, and dogs and cats negatively impact wild bird populations. Regardless of whether or not a dog is leashed, wild animals will respond by flying or running away. This instinctual response to a perceived danger consumes energy and may result in the abandonment of eggs or young.
2. Some avian species known to occur at Bolsa Chica are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Examples include California least tern, California gnatcatcher, western snowy plover, clapper rail and Belding's savannah sparrow.
3. Domestic pets can and have introduced parasites and disease into wild animal populations, resulting in negative impacts to those populations.
4. Wild species living on the reserve such as coyotes, large raptors and rattlesnakes are potentially lethal to domestic pets.
5. Strong tidal currents can and have resulted in pet drowning.
6. Portions of this reserve, including the mudflats around Rabbit Island and below and between the scenic overlooks, have been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the federally listed western snowy plover (a small shore bird). This listed species uses the mudflat areas to forage and has been known to bring its young to these areas. This species is highly sensitive to disturbance.
7. Off-leash dogs are especially problematic: Not only do off-leash dogs frighten Bolsa Chica's wildlife on a regular basis, they have been known to frighten human visitors, including children, by running up to them.
8. Pet waste (i.e., feces), when left on the trails by dog owners, is an unpleasant nuisance. Since dogs are not allowed on the reserve, there is no excuse for the waste to be there in the first place.
This does not even take into account bike-riders, whom O'Reilly assured me are doing their share of the damage, too, eroding trails at a time when there are no funds or manpower to do repairs. Or the wildlife photographers who leave the trails and tramp through sensitive areas to get their shots.
It seems so simple — respect the fragile lands because their needs are greater than your own personal desires, be it walking a dog, riding a bike or taking a picture.
Maybe it's all indicative of an increasingly self-absorbed culture that simply does not care about anything beyond its own immediate needs — and goes on the attack when challenged.
Whatever the reason, it is wrong that a small but growing percentage of people so flagrantly choose to abuse such simple, sensible rules. OK, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are just clueless about what they are doing. Thanks to O'Reilly, let there be no more excuses. Perhaps if you, the reader, see someone blatantly threatening the area, you'll make them aware of the facts.
I know I will.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at email@example.com.