Users of the Kenai River might recognize that the resource is overused, but few are willing to use it any less, according to preliminary findings from a Department of Natural Resources-funded study unveiled last week.
The $200,000, social science-based study on the experiences of river users was conducted by Doug Whittaker and co-researcher, Bo Shelby, of Confluence Consulting and Research, this past spring and summer for the DNR's Division of parks and Outdoor Recreation.
Park officials said the need for a study goes back to 2002, when issues of limiting crowding on the lower river hit a legal impasse.
The study combined use data, onsite and follow-up surveys to gauge the concerns of different user groups, and probe them for ways to solve issues on and along the banks of the river.
Whittaker prefaced the release of his study with the fact that this was a low use year on the river because of a down economy and poor king fishing. An exception to that was high use on the upper river during the first red run in mid-June.
He said that while last year and this coming year might be blips, in the future he would expect to see use to return to levels seen in previous years and likely increase.
Whittaker said that about 68 percent of those surveyed indicated they would never support use limits or that they are not needed now, 20 percent said they might and 10 percent said limits were needed immediately.
Those who did support limits generally supported limiting other user groups, but not themselves.
"There's no reason to demonize this," Whittaker said, "This is just reasonable self-interest."
He highlighted that there was strong support among non-guided users to cap boat numbers as well as the number of guided anglers.
Whittaker said survey takers were resistant to offer estimates for what a cap should be, but the numbers that were offered mirrored averages seen during high use periods.
Guides are already capped on the most popular segment of the upper Kenai.
Support for an all user registration system was also weak according to Whittaker, largely because survey takers said they feared it might lead to a cap in the future.
He explained that the topic of limiting remains a volatile one and suggested it may not be the easiest route to go.
"Concern over overuse continues, but the fix is not politically simple," he said.
He stressed that any fix would have to be equitable to meet the needs of multiple user groups that are often in competition with each other.
The study showed continued fractionalization for other types of fixes, with majority support for education and regulation actions related to boating safety. Actions might include no wake zones, driving lanes, a mandatory test or requirements for wearing personal flotation devices.
Whittaker said that among the user groups however, power boaters support for these measures was generally weak, except that powerboat guides indicated they supported requiring operators to pass a written test for a Kenai boating license.
Among drift boaters as well as bank anglers, support for additional drift only days on the lower or middle river was high. Not surprisingly, most power boaters were opposed to the idea.
While there was little consensus on when or where, there were indications that users might be willing to compromise with specific drift only days for specific segments of river.
Whittaker said redistributing users would be difficult, as anglers tend to flock towards areas where other anglers are having success.
"You can't keep them away from each other," he said.
Conflicts between guides and non-guided anglers were also addressed as part of the study.
Results showed that some guides could be aggressive and that the number of guided boats can detract from users' experiences.
While user group partisanship was evident in many of the responses, support for building new launches on the lower river and improving launches on all sections was high among all groups.
Whittaker cautioned however, that sometimes improvement and developments could lead to degradation of a resource through overuse.
He described the pressure on the river as "relentless" and that as the state's population continues to grow, paired with increased tourist visitation, it will only increase. He said managers have a suite of options for addressing problems, though some options are easier than others.
"The big looming picture is what else can you do to reduce impact in high use years, and those things are limits, and that's politically hard," he said. "It's going to be a lot of work involved if they try those things."
Whittaker anticipates having a draft of the report for agency review in late March.
He said he expects the division to use the final study by overlaying it with other recent reports on different issues facing the river, ultimately integrating it into the division's plan for the waterway.
"The worst thing from our point of view is when someone lets choices happen by default, not be design," he said. If you don't ever manage use, you get a place that changes over time, but you're not controlling that change. The point of these studies is to think about what your choices are."
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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