A woman and her dog playing catch on Rodgers Beach...

A woman and her dog playing catch on Rodgers Beach in Westhampton on Oct 15, 2020. Credit: John Roca

One of the brighter results of the pandemic is that it has prompted a lot of Long Islanders to bring dogs into their families. So it’s not a surprise that a perennial and controversial issue has returned: Should our furry friends be allowed on state park beaches?

A January Change.org petition from the canine-loving nonprofit LI-Dog now has thousands of signatures urging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders to open the state park beaches to the animals. The group has a good track record of advocating for dog parks and on-leash walking trails.

Long Island’s shoreline and green space has varying rules about dog access in parks operated by the region's many jurisdictions. Dogs are restricted in most crowded swimming locations. The federal Fire Island National Seashore allows pets in many areas but restricts them March 15 through Labor Day. Suffolk County’s Mud Creek County Park offers a natural borders dog park, and a dog area at Belmont Lake State Park where leashes can be removed is coming soon.

Dog owners understandably want to take their pets with them so they all can enjoy the region's wonderful array of open spaces, and there’s joy to be found in watching a dog running along the beach and leaping at the unfamiliarity of waves. But parks officials are right to be wary of the downsides that make allowing dogs on the beach a tricky decision.

Dogs are wont to relieve themselves pretty much wherever they go, and who among us is yearning to carry urine-soaked sand over to a distant garbage can? And then there is the scooping-the-poop challenge.

Also, dogs can be a threat to the natural habitat and wild animals that set up shop on Long Island beaches at different points of the year, from piping plovers to snowy owls. They can frighten birds when off-leash and cause birds to abandon their nests, according to the South Shore Audubon Society.

And while dogs are many a man, woman, or child’s best friend, they can also be a little too rambunctious for some of us. Beachgoers and walkers shouldn’t have to be on the lookout for puppies barking or beelining toward their legs or waists. Most dog owners understand this, and LI-Dogs is pointedly not asking for access to lifeguarded, crowded beaches.

Let's take it slow to see whether everyone's interests can be accommodated. A good compromise may be to see how the Belmont Lake experiment goes and, depending on the results, for state parks to study the potential impact of dogs for short offseason periods in some quieter areas like parts of Heckscher State Park. Relaxing the rules offseason at underutilized beaches, as the feds do on Fire Island, should be possible in a lot of places, too. But human visitors and natural habitats must come first.

— The editorial board