Every year from Nov. 1 to April 1, South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills is closed to motor traffic. Those in the know, understand the reason: To protect migrating and breeding California newts, Taricha rosa, trying to make their way to streams and ponds to mate when it rains.

The closure policy was established in 1993 and has become almost as much a local tradition as holiday shopping. Over the years, the area has evolved and become popular with a variety of users, including dog walkers, who take advantage of no-car policy.

But this year, contrary to tradition, off-leash dog walkers learned that a decision had been made to enforce the on-leash regulation. Dogs are still welcome but they must be on-leash.

Newt in Wildcat Creek with eggs
Newt in Wildcat Creek with eggs

The on-leash enforcement was met with surprise and disapproval by dog walkers who have become accustomed to using South Park Drive during inclement weather and led to a petition being posted by Thomas Jordan of Oakland on Change.org.

Jordan and the 250 people who signed that petition wanted the park district to explain and reverse the decision.

According to Anne Scheer, East Bay Regional Park District chief of park operations, the decision was made in October during the district's annual road closure meeting.

Scheer explained that because South Park Drive is officially designated a paved, multiuse trail, the regulation had always been on the books, but had not been enforced.

"We often look at all of our parks and rules and try to make sure we are enforcing whatever rules we have. In this instance, an internal document stated that dogs could be off-leash during the road closure," she said. "I saw this and said it was not correct. South Park Drive is a paved, multiuse trail and our rule is that dogs must be on-leash on that type of trail."

The district was not aware of the petition at the time the decision was made and Scheer said she understands that people want to have a place to exercise their dogs in inclement weather and that many fire roads in the Berkeley hills are muddy when it rains.

She asks that people consider the reasons behind the rule, that many people use South Park Drive because it's paved and closed to vehicles, including bicyclists, parents pushing strollers, wheelchair users and elders with mobility problems. They all require a stable, paved road. "It's always difficult for us in the park district to balance the needs of all our constituents but that's what we have to do and that's what we're trying to do here," Scheer said. "It's all about sharing the planet with other people."

The park district has very lenient dog rules and there are hundreds of miles of trails open to off-leash dogs, as well as an entire park, Point Isabel, where dogs can be off-leash. Scheer recommends people use the district website (www.ebparks.org) to explore other parks with soil types less affected by rain.

The closure of South Park Drive was originally initiated because of the hundreds of newts being crushed by cars and remains closed as a resource protection issue. Today, newts are safely able to migrate and visitors to the park can see them in their natural setting.

But over the years the benefits of the closure have expanded. Aside from offering a way for different groups to use the road, the closure allows an area of the park that experiences heavy picnic use to rest.

"I find it a win-win situation for the environment and for the public that the road is closed," Scheer said. "It has become very popular and that's a good thing. We love to have people come to our parks and find different ways to use them."

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