Eileen Cervantes remembers the off-leash parks in Santa Clara, Calif., where she used to take Bailey, her son’s corgi mix.
“It was a postage stamp-sized lot with 50 dogs,” said Cervantes, who recalled both the dogs and their owners being very tense.
After moving to Clark County in November 2015, she said she was struck with the four off-leash parks in Clark County that range from 4 to 12 acres, with plenty of branches, trees and room to romp. She now regularly brings Flynn, her 8-year-old Kooikerhondje, to Ike Memorial Park.
But these off-leash dog parks have suffered growing pains along with the rest of Clark County. More people means more crowding at the parks, more conflict, more violations of rules and more wear-and-tear. Over the summer, Mark Watson, the former president of DOGPAW, the nonprofit that maintains the parks, said the group would have to pull up stakes by September without more help from the county.
Since then, DOGPAW, which stands for Dog Owners Group for Park Access in Washington, didn’t pull up stakes and Watson has recently left the group’s board.
While the challenges facing the off-leash parks haven’t gone away, Cervantes, who became the group’s board president in October, said that they’ve recently struck agreements with both the city of Vancouver and Clark County that will keep the parks viable.
The rules for the parks require dogs to be vaccinated and licensed. Aggressive dogs and non-neutered male canines aren’t allowed, nor are prong or spike collars. Dogs aren’t allowed to dig holes. Their owners must keep their dogs on a leash while in the parking lot and pick up after them.
“Animal control is really the No. 1 enforcer for many of these things and they simply don’t have enough officers to cover an entire county,” said Cervantes. “If they are out in Amboy, how are they going to get back to Vancouver in a timely way to take care of an issue?”
The county government provides animal control services for the city of Vancouver and unincorporated Clark County. With five officers, it’s been chronically understaffed. Clark County Director of Community Development Mitch Nickolds has expressed interest in the idea of hiring an officer to focus on dog licensing and the parks.
In its 2019-2020 budget, the city of Vancouver included funding for another animal control officer. Vancouver Parks and Recreation Director Julie Hannon said that the city would contract with the county to fund the new position. The city’s two-year budget has set aside $105,935 for salaries and benefits and $36,484 for miscellaneous expenses.
Hannon said that she didn’t have an exact timeline for when the new officer could be hired but said it could be as soon as the summer. She said the city is still examining data on park usage trends to set the duties of the new officer. But she expects the officer will focus on educating and enforcing the licensing requirements. She also said that the officer would only be at the Ike Memorial Park, the only off-leash area in Vancouver.
“It’s important to have these parks for people,” said Hannon, who praised DOGPAW’s work on the parks. “It’s very well used and people are passionate about it.”
Susan Anderson, animal control manager, said that the county is close to being back to five officers after three were dismissed over the summer. She said that enforcing rules is difficult because of the “very nature of the parks” and that people should be aware of their risks.
DOGPAW has provided the maintenance for the parks, including repairing fencing, mowing grass, maintaining trails and removing pet waste. It costs the nonprofit more than $100,000 per year to perform these duties, which has been financially straining at times.
Three of the off-leash sites are at parks owned by the county. Bill Bjerke, county park manager, said that he met with the nonprofit’s leaders in November and December after they asked for some relief. He said that the county already provides maintenance at the Dakota Memorial Park off-leash area. He said the county agreed to take over maintenance for the other two parks, which should cost around $35,000 a year.
“These off-leash areas are hugely popular and we want to keep that resource open for the public to enjoy in perpetuity,” he said.
Bjerke said that volunteers will continue to pick up dog waste and will be a presence to remind people about the rules. Cervantes said that this will be a huge relief for the nonprofit.
“They stepped up big time,” she said.