The acting commissioner of Alaska State Parks has modified a proposal by the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board to place a moratorium on new Kenai River sport fishing guide permits.
In a decision issued Thursday, acting Department of Natural Resources commissioner Marty Rutherford ruled the number of guide permits should be capped at last year's level, but new guides can operate in the place of guides who decide not to guide.
The decision was announced at Thursday's advisory board meeting by Kenai area Parks superintendent Chris Degernes.
The news didn't sit well with the board.
"I'm rather disappointed with this," board member Joe Connors said following the announcement.
Connors -- who also is president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association -- said the decision makes it harder to implement such measures as industry training and certification programs that guides themselves have been working toward.
"I don't see any possibility of bringing any of these in at all," Connors said. "It's a free-for-all."
According to the decision, any of the 348 guides who operated on the Kenai in 2002 are eligible to guide again this year. If any decide not to renew their permits by April 30, their slot will be given out to the first qualified applicant who applies. Permits also can become available if a guide gives up a permit during the season.
In the decision, Rutherford said capping the number of guide permits would not hinder the existing guide business unfairly, nor would it interfere with Department of Fish and Game jurisdiction.
However, he ruled that the intent of the moratorium was simply to preserve the "status quo" on the Kenai, not cut guide numbers.
Degernes speculated the decision was made in order to address an existing appeal and any potential lawsuits from those who oppose limits on guides, saying Rutherford believed the ruling would limit the chance the moratorium would be challenged in court.
Board member Ted Wellman -- himself an attorney -- blasted the decision, saying he believed the legal challenges were without merit.
"I suspect it's got more to do with politics than any legal challenges," Wellman said.
Wellman said the whole idea behind the moratorium was to begin a process for slowly lowering the number of guides operating on the river.
"The number we had was too damn high to begin with," Wellman said.
Degernes told the board the ruling didn't leave the moratorium completely toothless.
"At least this will freeze the number at no more than 2002," Degernes offered.
However, Degernes' appraisal of the situation did little to lessen the board's ire.
Roland Maw said he believes the acting commissioner's ruling will not only allow guide numbers to remain at present levels, but it will set up the possibility that permits can be used as a commodity. He pointed out that a permit holder could sell a permit by simply notifying the buyer when the permit would become available.
"Prior knowledge a guide permit will not be used sets that up to be used as a commodity," Maw said. "I'm not sure that's where I want to go. I'm not sure that's where the public wants to go. I'm not sure that's where the guides want to go."
Connors said guides recognize there's a problem with crowding on the river and agreed the decision was not what most guides want.
"We're trying to bring (numbers) down," Connors said in frustration.
Board member Robin West tried to put a good face on the ruling, urging the board to wait to find out how the Murkowski administration feels about the moratorium.
On Friday, Gov. Frank Murkowski picked Tom Irwin, a former executive with Fairbanks Gold Mining Inc., to head the DNR.
"If the administration is opposed to this, we'll find out really soon," West said. "I'd just recommend patience."
West's comments did little to curb board frustration at the decision.
"The first thing people told me when I got on this board was, 'You've got to do something about the guide problem,'" Wellman said. "Every time we get close, it gets yanked away from us. It's damn frustrating."
The moratorium capping the number of guides at 348 went into effect Thursday. Unless altered, it will remain in effect until the end of 2004.
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