Environmental Concerns

Lighthouse Field and Its Beach are beautiful undeveloped urban open spaces.

This wonderful park provides a "natural" setting, but it is neither a wilderness nor a native habitat. The character of the park is nevertheless worthy of protection, and preservation of the area has been a Santa Cruz priority for years.

A number of environmental arguments have been presented which portray dogs as the primary and sometimes the only cause of environmental concern. After looking at both the broader neighborhood and urban context in which the park exists, as well as at the detailed site-specific conditions, it is clear that there is no significant conflict between the presence of dogs off leash and the preservation of Lighthouse Field and Its Beach. Issues related to dogs are negligible compared to other impacts.

The people who use Lighthouse Field for recreation with off-leash dogs are strong supporters for maintaining the undeveloped character of Lighthouse Field.

Urban Context


Lighthouse Field is surrounded by densely developed residential neighborhoods on three sides, and bounded by Pelton and West Cliff Drive on the north and south sides. There are many entry points to the field and numerous footpaths criss-cross the acreage. Crossing the heavy traffic on West Cliff Drive, the coastal cliffs of Its Beach serve to separate the beach from street traffic and activity above on West Cliff Drive. What used to be natural drainage channels through the areas north of Pelton have been landscaped, built, and paved over — the water coming into the field now comes primarily from surface street runoff.

The Lighthouse Field and Its Beach area (together known officially as Lighthouse Field State Beach — LFSB) has been subject to major human impact and modifications for generations. The field appears to have been used for agricultural purposes during the second half of the 19th century. In the late 1800’s, it became part of the Phelan Estate and supported extensive buildings, gardens, lawns, Eucalyptus trees and Monterey Cypress.1 In the 1960s, a large apartment complex was built at the west end of the Field, and, as is well known, the community rallied in the 1970’s to protect the park from further development.

Currently, most of the existing vegetation is non-native, while the native vegetation that can be found there is mostly — if not entirely — due to restoration attempts that have occurred with little success since 1990. 2 Off-leash dogs have been a presence in the park for many years, officially allowed since 1993, and traditionally for many years before that, according to local residents.

Before attempting to address the impact of any particular use on the field, it is essential to bear in mind the enormous degree to which the surrounding neighborhoods have been increasingly filled in and built up between the 1960’s and the present time. The two aerial photos (to the right) of the Lighthouse Field neighborhood from 1961 and 2001 illustrate the loss of open space around the park, creating more and more of an island of green, in the suburban neighborhood. As more homes, apartments, schools and other structures have been built in this West Side neighborhood, the park has become completely cut off from other green, open spaces, with huge increases in traffic, parking, human activity and noise.

The park provides us with a natural setting for a wide range of recreational activities — on any given day people use the park for walking, jogging, biking, congregating with friends and family, drumming, sunbathing, kite-flying, beach-combing, picnicking, relaxing, and for access to beaches for surfing. All of this activity, taken as a whole, has considerable impact. In addition, a number of high-impact illegal activities occur in the park, including littering, drinking and camping.

In light of the park’s urban setting and long history of varied usage, it is extremely difficult — and in some matters, impossible — to isolate the impact of any single particular factor when attempting to assess the status of the habitat or of the flora and fauna found there.

There is no credible evidence that off-leash dog use adds significantly to the disturbances that the surrounding urban area and general activity levels impose on Lighthouse Field and Its Beach.


Site-specific concerns

Many of the concerns that have been raised about off-leash dog activity are worthy of consideration, while others have been based on speculation, misinformation or false assumptions. In the following pages we present the information we have gathered in response to these questions.

This information is specific to Lighthouse Field and Its Beach, and is grouped into concerns about sensitive habitats, about special status species, about common or non-endangered species, and then about some of the issues responsible dog owners should be concerned about.




Monarch Habitat — Parks and Recreation staff has called for restricting access to the Monarch Roosting Grove to ease impact of park activity on roosting butterflies, and to evaluate habitat enhancement. (Please refer to the Special Status Species section below for further discussion of Monarch Butterflies). FOLF supports the recommendation of Parks and Recreation with regard to this area.

Willow Riparian Area — Parks and Recreation staff have repeatedly stated that their concern for the Willow Riparian Area stems as much from human activity as from dogs. People using the cover of the willows for partying and camping leave behind trash, human waste, and drug paraphernalia. The resulting degradation is a major factor in the General Plan recommendation that access to the corridor be restricted for both humans and dogs. FOLF supports reasonable measures to enhance this habitat.

Note that part of the current General Plan recommendation is to attempt to restore a more natural, meandering path for water in the riparian corridor, since it was substantially altered in the past (i.e., it was straightened, probably to "enhance" drainage for flooding and standing water problems - which we now call seasonal ponds).3

Seasonal Ponds — Much discussion has occurred regarding the seasonal ponds at Lighthouse Field. Some seasonal ponds in California can be a habitat for certain rare species that require the yearly wet/dry cycle. Based on two surveys commissioned by Parks and Recreation, and on preliminary evidence from a citywide study, none of the ponds at Lighthouse Field support protected or endangered species. 4

Preservation and Restoration — In the General Plan, the Parks and Recreation staff, with State Park support, recommended that restrictions and restoration activities focus on vulnerable areas which are most likely to respond to additional protection: the Willow Riparian Area and the Monarch habitat. Minimal priority is given to attempts at reintroducing native coastal meadow species in the rest of the park, which has been generally unsuccessful in the past.

Fencing — Fencing may be used to delineate restricted access areas in both the Monarch Grove and the Riparian Corridor. Both people and dogs would be restricted to designated paths in these two areas.5 Banning off-leash dogs from the entire Field would do nothing to address the habitat damage that results from human use, nor would it alleviate the need for fencing.


SPECIAL STATUS SPECIES - in an Urban Context


Monarch Butterflies — In recent years the Eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress grove at the east end of the Lighthouse Field has become a locally important winter roosting site for migrating Monarch Butterflies. We support the protection and enhancement of this area as outlined in the General Plan. There is no indication that dogs have any significant interaction with the butterflies, nor are dogs indicated as predators. Several monarch experts testified by request of the Parks and Rec. commissioners, and none have indicated any concern with the current off-leash dog policies. When Dr. Kingston Leong (the monarch specialist hired to study Lighthouse Field and prepare management guidelines) was asked directly by Parks and Recreation commissioners about possible dog issues vis a vis the monarchs, he replied that the only mammal he was concerned about, was our own species.6 When asked to review Dr. Leong’s recommended management plan for possible deficiencies, local butterfly experts Dr. Ralph Berger and John Dayton offered extensive commentary, none of which indicated any problems with dogs.7

It is also widely acknowledged that in the past five years, the numbers of butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach — where dogs are prohibited — have been declining, while a notable increase in numbers has been recorded at LFSB.8 It would appear that the activity associated with both dogs and people has not diminished the appeal of this location to the butterflies. (Status: Monarch Butterflies are a locally unique species, and LFSB, as one of a limited number of west coast winter roosting areas, is considered critical for maintaining viable monarch populations.9)

Black Swifts — this species nests in coastal bluffs, and has nested at Lighthouse Point, in the past. There is no indication regarding any interaction between dogs and the cliff dwelling the Black Swifts.10 (Status: Black Swift - CDFG species of special concern (CDFG 2002).11)

Peregrine Falcons and Merlins — these raptors are found at LFSB. Both are powerful predators and it is unlikely that dogs or cats would prey on these species. The Merlin does not nest in this area. The Peregrine Falcons have not been known to nest here, but this is within their nesting area. They "nest on ledges and crevices of steep, inaccessible coastal bluffs, and on cliff faces".12 There is no indication that dogs pose any threat to these birds. (Status: Peregrine Falcon - State Endangered Species (CDFG 2002), Merlin - CDFG Species of Special Concern.13)

Artist Popcorn Flowers (or Choris Popcorn Flowers) — There has been one report of a small population of these flowers at Lighthouse Field in 2002. It is unknown if this is a viable, self-sustaining population, or a remnant of a past restoration attempt.14 It is also unknown what impact dogs might have on these plants, if any. This native plant is listed by the California Native Plant Society and their inventory shows known populations primarily in the far northern part of Santa Cruz County, San Mateo County, and San Francisco County.15 (Status: CNPS List 1B, RED 2-2-3, RARITY: A limited number of occurrences in California, occasionally more if each occurrence is small. ENDANGERMENT: Fairly endangered in California, DISTRIBUTION: Endemic to California. 16)

NON-ENDANGERED FAUNA AND FLORA - in an urban context


Birds — a survey done for the 1984 General Plan found 119 bird species at LFSB.17 A similar survey in 2002 found 140 species18. Bird diversity seems to be increasing even with the off-leash dog policy. No population census for birds at LFSB is available.

Sea Lions — Referencing the work of Dr. Jim Harvey, a concern was raised that dogs can carry a disease that can affect sea lions (leptospirosis). When contacted, Dr. Harvey stated that the sea lions would need to come up on the beach and interact with the dogs on the beach for the disease to be passed.19 Sea Lions seldom, if ever, use Its Beach as a haul out location, preferring Seal Rock just off Lighthouse Point.

Sea Otters — Disease-causing parasites in freshwater runoff may be killing federally protected southern sea otters, according to University of California scientists. A parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, has been identified as an important cause of fatal brain infections in these otters. Cats are the only animals known to shed oocysts, which are the tough, environmentally resistant eggs of Toxoplasma parasites, in their feces.20

Ducks — There are anecdotal claims that there used to be more ducks at Lighthouse Field. These claims have never given specifics on how long ago ducks might have occurred at the field, or any detail on species or numbers. Given the previously cited changes in the configuration of the drainage ditch, building and infill over various seasonal ponds both in the current park boundaries, and in previously open spaces around the park. If there were more ducks previously, it is not unreasonable to assume that neighborhood growth might be a large factor in wildfowl changes.

Quail — The situation with quail is similar to that of ducks. At one time there may have been more quail in Lighthouse Field. Given the surrounding urbanization and limited habitat area, quail in Lighthouse Field are unlikely to be common, regardless of the status of dogs in the park.

Vegetation — Parks and Rec. staff could not find sufficient baseline information from the past to compare to the present. Reports indicate that restoration attempts made throughout the 1990's had some small success at re-establishing native species, with especially poor success in the grassland areas.21 This experience forms the basis of staff's current recommendations to focus on the Willow Riparian Area and the Monarch Grove, as outlined in the LFSB General Plan.


Dog Feces

The problem of undisposed of dog feces and the potential health hazard this could cause by increasing water fecal coliform counts has been mentioned in this discussion. However, frequent measuring and monitoring of water quality by both the County Health Department and the independent Surf Riders Organization have consistently shown that Its Beach seldom reaches or exceeds recommended state quality limits.22 Bacterial levels have only been problematic at Its Beach on storm days, when all locations that have local storm run-off show spikes in bacterial counts. Its Beach generally shows average or better-than-average conditions compared to other county beaches.23

FOLF and the larger community of off-leash users of the park have been at the forefront in educating the public on the necessity of picking up after our dogs. For many years the dog community has sponsored regular cleanup days in the field and the beach, in partnership with park staff. Since FOLF formed in 2002, we have sponsored these regular cleanup days in the field and beach, again with collaboration and supplies from park staff; we have also gotten staff approval to set up a new program to stock the cleanup stations throughout the park with recycled plastic grocery bags. Recently we have organized regular Sunday afternoon cleanups at Its Beach to address the heavier weekend use in warmer weather. This includes both trash and dog feces, including what is left behind by our many out-of-town visitors, who are often unfamiliar with the regulations and expectations of the Santa Cruz community.

FOLF intends to continue to expand its efforts at public outreach and education. The value we place on our access to the field and beach encourages us to take special care of this precious resource. Much of the compliance with cleanup regulations grows directly out of the attachment we all have to this park as a place that we can enjoy with our dogs off leash.

Dog Behaviors

Another concern that has been voiced is the harassment of birds and other wildlife by off-leash dogs. Admittedly, dogs chase moving things and though this does occur at the field, a relatively small number of dogs engage in this type of activity at any given time. More typically one sees dogs chasing each other or chasing tennis balls and Frisbees. While dogs may occasionally flush birds in the grassy areas of the field, physical harm to the birds is extremely rare. (Birders generally acknowledge that cats in an urban area are a significant cause of bird mortality. We could find no information estimating the number of cats in and near the Field, but the presence of dogs in the park may actually act to somewhat discourage cat activity.)

The majority of owners whose dogs are likely to chase birds or to dig are aware of their dog's tendencies and do monitor and control their dogs’ activity. This is an area that is appropriate for more public education efforts.


The research that we have presented on the environmental impact of off-leash dog use at Lighthouse Field State Park indicates that off-leash dog use does not contribute significant additional impact on the habitat and wildlife at Lighthouse Field State Beach. With responsible dog ownership and the FOLF community’s continued leadership, education efforts, and peer pressure, there is no need to further restrict or ban off-leash dogs at Lighthouse Field and Its Beach.


We have several recommendations about environmental concerns:


  • Continue the successful off-leash access at Lighthouse Field and Its Beach. The benefit to the community is large and the environmental impact is minimal.
  • Continue to keep the Field and Beach as undeveloped areas. The community of people with dogs cherishes undeveloped open space. We support maintaining the undeveloped open character of the Field and Beach.
  • Work with community members to educate and foster environmental protection, based on reasonable expectations. For example, the voluntary cooperation with the Monarch area protection has been excellent. Rather than building high fences or stopping all access to the park for everyone, education and communication with community support will go a long way. The FOLF community stewardship proposal is one mechanism that could be considered.
  • Focus protection on the highest impacts. If there are problems at the Field or Beach, it’s not because of dogs. There are many important issues that need attention. We fully support protecting the character of the Field.

1 Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003. Section 2.2.3 Biotic Resources (intro) p.13.

2 "Most of these scattered native grasses and wildflowers are remnants of past seeding and planting efforts conducted in the 1990s." p. 14, Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003. The Plan references three reports from 1995 and 1996 restoration programs, prepared for the Santa Cruz Consolidated Emergency Communications Center.

3 Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003. Section 3.3.4 Willow Riparian Management Area p.53.

4 Two reports were commissioned by the Parks and Rec. staff, one to survey existing wildlife populations, the other to survey plant and vegetation populations at Lighthouse Field State Beach.

5 Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003. Section 3.3.3 Monarch Butterfly Management Area p.53, and Section 3.3.4 Willow Riparian Management Area p.54.

6 Dr. Leong (butterfly expert hired by P&R) quoted from his Monarch Butterfly presentation and rebuttal to peer review; City Parks & Rec. commission meeting 3/3/2002. (from tape of meeting)

7 Dr. Ralph Berger and Mr. John Dayton, (local butterfly experts requested by P&R commission to do a peer review of Dr. Leong's paper) from their peer review of Monarch Butterfly Management Guidelines, and response to rebuttal; City Parks & Rec. commission meeting 3/3/2002. (from tape of meeting)

8 Berger and Dayton, ibid.

9 Bryan Mori. July 2002. Wildlife Assessment Lighthouse Field State Beach. Prepared for the City of Santa Cruz.

10 Bryan Mori, ibid.

11 Bryan Mori, ibid.

12 Bryan Mori, ibid.

13 Bryan Mori, ibid.

14 "Most of these scattered native grasses and wildflowers are remnants of past seeding and planting efforts conducted in the 1990s." p. 14, Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003.

15 California Native Plant Society, Plant Inventory Online: http://www.cnps.org/inventory/, for Plagiobothrys chorisianus var. chorisianus (Choris Popcorn Flower)

16 California Native Plant Society, Plant Inventory Online, ibid.

17 Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan. 1984. p. 26.

18 Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003. p.18.

19 Dr. Jim Harvey, personal communication with Laura Hartwick. April 2002.

20 University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources News Release. June 27, 2002. http://news.ucanr.org/newsstorymain.cfm?story=87

21 Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan Update Draft. January 2003. Section 2.2.3, p14. The Plan references three reports from 1995 and 1996 restoration programs, prepared for the Santa Cruz Consolidated Emergency Communications Center.

22 County water quality measurements and Surfrider's data are both available on-line, at:: http://sccounty01.co.santa-cruz.ca.us/eh/wqpages/O510.htm and http://www.surfridersantacruz.org/test.htm

23 Historical data both from the county and from Surfrider's has been reviewed by FOLF members, and multiple emails have been exchanged with Steve Peters of the County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Services, all leading to these conclusions. Separately Parks and Rec. staff planner, Susan Harris did a similar review, and provided Parks and Rec. Commissioners with a similar assessment in an informational memo for the July 1, 2002 Parks and Rec. Commission meeting.

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