Dogs. For years conflicts between dogs and dogs; dogs and hikers, runners, skiers or bikers; dogs and wildlife; dogs and water quality; and dogs and traffic have made the headlines. In the past many of these conflicts have taken place in Cache Creek in east Jackson, but now the story has made it over the pass into Idaho.
The Teton Basin Ranger District of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest announced Jan. 24 that it would enforce a leash law at the Teton Canyon trailhead, and, in the winter months, would ban dogs from the new Southern Valley trail system near the Mike Harris Campground, which lies just west of the Wyoming state line in Idaho. These trails are groomed for Nordic skiing and fat biking, and have become increasingly popular since their creation two years ago. There’s also a sledding hill at Mike Harris that many Victor families frequent throughout the winter.
Needless to say the announcement has caused a bit of an uproar, with some crying foul, others applauding. I find myself on the edge of the fray because people are being told to contact the city of Victor, Idaho, with their concerns, and I happen to sit on the Victor City Council.
I am not a dog person, but I understand that many people view their dogs as their children. They love their pets with the same unquestioning, adoring love that parents have for their kids, which means that they are often blind to their pets’ faults. That’s understandable. That’s what love is about, but it seems to me that at times dog owners are even worse than parents in letting their animals get away with unacceptable behavior in public.
It’s been a long time since my daughter threw a temper tantrum in the grocery store, and an even longer time since she bit someone in the swimming pool while playing sharks and minnows (she was a shark after all!). But I can still remember how ashamed I felt when those events took place. It was not so much her behavior but my inability to control it that caused my consternation. On one occasion I abandoned my loaded shopping cart and hustled my 2-year-old, kicking and screaming, out of the store to get away from the public eye as quickly as possible. Her tantrum, I feared, made me look like a bad parent, a label no one wants to wear.
Dogs’ parents seem different. Not all of them, of course. I know there are plenty of responsible dog owners out there; in fact I’d bet most dog owners are responsible. But there are enough irresponsible ones to give all of you all a bad reputation. How many piles of dog poop have you seen littered along the side of the trail? How many dogs have you watched run barking after a deer while their owners scream at them ineffectively? And I don’t know how many times I’ve been told “He’s friendly” as some strange dog ran up and jumped all over me.
The point is, I don’t care if your dog is friendly. I don’t want dogs jumping on me. I don’t want to step in dog poop or see plastic bags filled with it along the trail. I don’t want to see wildlife stressed, I don’t want to get tangled up with a dog while skiing or biking or hiking, and I don’t think I should have to tolerate these things just because you love your dog.
Years ago I was hanging out with a group of women in Teton Valley. For some reason the subject of dogs came up, and someone jokingly referred to a secret group called VARDO. The name, a play on the well-known Teton Valley nonprofit VARD or Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, stood for Valley Advocates for Responsible Dog Ownership. It was all tongue-in-cheek, and VARDO did not really exist, but the fact that it was even a joke — and a secret one — says something. Not everyone loves everyone’s dog. Not everyone wants to tolerate a dog’s misbehavior, but many of us are reluctant to say anything because there’s the perception that there is something wrong with you if you don’t love dogs.
I’m serious. I had someone tell me once that my name came up in a conversation and whomever mentioned me did so because they were surprised I was a warm person given my attitude toward dogs. I don’t remember ever thinking anything like that about people who didn’t want or didn’t like children, so I was shocked to know my personal attitude toward dogs had the potential to determine who might be my friends.
I try to be neutral about dogs because I understand that they bring joy and companionship to their owners. I know that the bond between dogs and their people is real and deep. I respect that and want people to have every opportunity to enjoy time with their animals, and so I get that many dog owners are bummed to have a place like the Southern Valley trail system closed off to them. After all, it’s a beautiful spot to recreate, and, like Cache Creek in Jackson, it’s convenient to people’s homes in Victor, and easy for them to access for a quick romp with their pet.
Which gets us back to the decision by Jay Pence, the Teton Basin Ranger District’s district ranger, to implement these new regulations. Pence told the Teton Valley News that for the Southern Valley trails he wanted to set expectations before habits were established. Since the trails are relatively new — this is only the first season that the Yeti’s Post Nordic Trail has been groomed — people can’t claim they are being deprived of access they’ve enjoyed with their pets for years. He wants to avoid problems before they become problems. His reasoning has merit. There are issues with dogs in other places, but for dog owners the decision to keep them off the Southern Valley trails undoubtedly feels unfair — it feels as if people are being punished for something that hasn’t happened and may not happen.
Which comes back to my comment about responsible dog ownership, which comes back to my point two weeks ago about responsible backcountry recreational use, which comes around to a point that is becoming blatantly clear: There are too many of us wandering around the mountains these days to ignore our impact on the land, on wildlife and on each other. If we want to be able to recreate in our national forests freely we need to police ourselves and our dogs, otherwise we invite more and more regulations to protect the places we love. Frankly, I understand where Pence is coming from. Just like I pulled my daughter out of the grocery store when she threw a fit over ice cream, if I were a parent watching the way some of us behave in our national forests, I’d be inclined to yank us all back into the car for discipline as well.
Maybe we can talk Pence into reconsidering his decision for the Southern Trails system, but first I think we need to convince him that we are up to that responsibility. And I just saw the first sign that perhaps we are. Devin Dwyer has proposed a poop fairy day for Saturday. She is calling for dog owners and dog lovers to come to Teton Canyon armed with shovels, ice axes and whatever else it takes to clean up the dog waste in the area. PAWS of Jackson Hole is providing plastic bags for the effort. Watch Facebook for more details. For me Devin’s initiative is a bright sign that we really are capable of policing ourselves and maybe, maybe, we can convince Pence that we deserve our privileges.