By Mark Prado ... IJ Reporter

On a moist Wednesday afternoon, with brown loam underfoot sopped by the morning's rain and turkey vultures flying lazily overhead, Carl Wreden of Novato flings a ball and grins as his trusty black Labrador Willie chases it down.

"He loves it here," said Wreden, as he stood on the fire road that snakes behind the College of Marin's Indian Valley campus in Novato.  Buddy, his other dog, a yellow Labrador, stands nearby with tail wagging.

"All these dogs want to do is run," Wreden said.  "They are just happy to be outside.  They love it here."

Willie and Buddy are running on the fire roads without leashes and they are having a ball.  But these days, other county residents are finding the number of unleashed dogs on Marin County Open Space District fire roads annoying, if not downright dangerous.

In recent months, the Open Space District has been flooded with calls complaining of unleashed dogs intimidating, growling and nipping at them.

"The owners always say, 'They don't bite and they are really friendly,' but how do you really know?  That's the bottom line," said Marin City resident Royce McLemore, who had to confront a growling dog as she walked on Open Space District land last weekend with her 9-year-old grandson.

"You are out to enjoy nature, not to be sniffed or growled at by a dog," she said.  "People always talk about voice control, but how can there be voice control when their dog is way ahead of them, around a bend?"

There are few issues in Marin that can match the intensity and divisiveness of the question of whether dogs should continue to be allowed to be off leashes on the 100 miles of Open Space District fire roads.

Dog owners are vehement in their crusade to let their pooches run free, as are those who say the Spots and Fidos of the world need to be tethered so others can enjoy the space too.

To call it a Holy War would be hyperbole, but it wouldn't be far off the mark.

When the Open Space District announced a public hearing on the issue would be held Feb. 20, officials received more than 100 letters and calls, both pro and con.

"It's running about 50-50 right now," said Frances Brigmann, general manager of the Open Space District.

The issue got so hot, the county decided to postpone the hearing until April to try and let cooler heads prevail.  Part of that decision was based on the Jan. 26 fatal mauling of San Francisco resident Diane Whipple.  Officials were concerned the incident might unfairly color the context of the Marin issue.

In Marin, dogs must be kept on-leash on the district's 68 acres of narrow, single-track trails, and off-leash proponents generally agree with that.  But it is the fire roads that have now come into focus, where dogs have run unfettered for almost three decades.

In 1972, Marin residents voted to form the Open Space District.  The district maintains and acquires areas of natural landscape within the county.  The district also maintains county parks well as grounds around county buildings.

It's really been in the last two years when we have seen more and more complaints," Brigmann said.  "While initial grievances were lodged against professional dog walkers, more recently the complaints have been made by neighbors against neighbors,"  she said.

William Buchanan of Mill Valley has walked the fire roads for more than quarter of a century.  He said the problem of off-leash dogs is getting worse.

"We never let our dog off-lead even though he is docile," said Buchanan, who keeps his Brittany spaniel on a 30-foot-long retractable leash.  "What we see now is other dogs coming up and biting him.  There are a lot of people who don't train their dogs and they just let them run wild.  It's not the dogs.  The owners are the ones at fault."

Buchanan said he is on guard when he walks the fire roads.  "People say, 'don't worry,' but there are a whole slew of character behaviors in dogs that people do not know about," he said.  "'Don't worry, he's harmless' - those are the famous last words."

But those who let their dogs off-leash complain of a shrinking number of places where they can get out in nature and let their companions run and get exercise.  The Golden National Recreation Area Advisory Commission is considering forcing all dogs to be on leashes at Rodeo, Muir and other beaches.  The state parks system prohibits dogs on trails.

"I'm careful, and if everyone else is careful I don't see any reason why there needs to be leashes, especially on these open trails," said Novato resident Jules Schindler, as he finished a brisk walk with his Rottweiler on the Indian Valley trail.  "There is no other place.  Dog Parks?  That's nonsense.  Going there, inside a chain-link fence area, might work for little dogs, but not the larger dogs.  You don't get the exercise, either."

Connie Berto of Sleepy Hollow, who uses the trails, said it would be hard to make a sweeping decision without being unfair.  "It really has to be a case-by-case basis," she said.  "I'm against blanket law for all of Marin but, in sensitive environmental areas or where you have strollers and children, then yes, it's good to have dogs on leashes."

The Marin Humane Society has kept a close eye on the issue and has lobbied to keep dogs off-leash for the health of dogs.  The organization also sees the outdoor experience as a way for humans and their animals to bond.

The Humane Society asked the Open Space District for an accounting of complaints and found there had been 81 over the past two years.  While the Humane Society characterized the numbers as low, Open Space officials said the numbers only represent official complaints made by rangers who have filed reports.

"The fire roads are perfect," said Marin Humane Society Executive Director Diane Allevato.  "They are not pristine open space, they are the roads that wrap around and through our neighborhoods.  What better place to walk dogs?"

The issue is complex and there is no one easy answer, Allevato said.  "It is a really easy thing to say, 'no dogs off-leash,' but it will take a more contemplative process to work out solutions.  Curfews, a two-dog per person maximum, peer groups to monitor trails; there are many kinds of things that could be implemented.  This is a creative community, with bright and involved people capable of coming up with solutions."

But the sides appear polarized.  "I probably wouldn't obey a law if it was passed," Wreden said.  "I would come up here during certain times of the day when I knew I could get away with it."

Buchanan, meanwhile, worries about a severe attack.  "I have started to carry pepper spray," he said.