An Alaska State Parks ranger told the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee on Wednesday that fully enforcing fisheries, boating safety and other rules and regulations on the Kenai River is virtually impossible.
State Park Ranger Bill Berkhahn said that because of cuts to the Department of Natural Resources, the number of enforcement officers on the river has dropped over the years even as use of the state's most popular sport fishery has steadily increased.
"Our enforcement is down, but our use is up," Berkhahn said.
He told the advisory committee which is responsible for making recommendations on what regulations Berkhahn and other officers must enforce that the number of rangers on the river has dropped from six to three since 1984. That has led to a situation on the Kenai where rangers must pick and choose which areas they keep an eye on.
"There is a large block of time out there when there is no enforcement," he said.
Alaska State Parks doesn't have the only enforcement presence on the river, but Berkhahn said rangers are the most active. Alaska State Troopers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers and U.S. Forest Service officers also patrol sections of the river.
But Berkhahn said rangers are the only ones patrolling the majority of the river each and every day during the summer not an easy job considering rangers also must keep an eye on state campgrounds in the area. Add that to the fact that troopers can only spend two to three days each week on the river and federal officers only patrol within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Berkhahn said it equals a situation where enforcement on the Kenai is becoming a major issue.
"We have less law enforcement out there," he said.
He said rangers rarely even bother writing citations for most minor violations they encounter on the river. Instead, he said he and his staff spend most of their time educating fishers on various regulations.
"My goal is not to write tickets, but to educate and inform," he said.
Still, he said park rangers issued roughly 254 citations last summer mainly local anglers cited for illegally snagging red salmon. Only four citations were issued to guides during the summer.
"The guides are doing a pretty good job," he said.
Still, the number of citations could be much higher, he said, and almost every boat he encounters has something worth correcting.
"Usually there's something we need to talk about with them," he said.
Advisory committee members were curious to know Berkhahn's take on just how much illegal activity takes place during the summer on the Kenai.
"How lawless is it?" asked committee member John Nelson.
Berkhahn said he believes the majority of anglers on the Kenai are trying to follow the rules and regulations. However, he also believes that there are major violations taking place every day that go unchecked.
"It is very prevalent out there. How lawless? There's some serious problems out there," he said. "We need more enforcement."
Committee member Jim Kuhns-man said he believes enforcement on the river needs to be stepped up because lax enforcement reflects badly on the entire area not just the river.
"This affects everybody else in this community," Kuhnsman said.
Kuhnsman said with such little enforcement presence on the river, "It's a wonder we haven't had a more serious accident or tragedy on the river."
Berkhahn asked committee members to keep the enforcement situation in mind when calling for new regulations and to also contact state legislators to lobby for increased parks funding for more rangers.
"Let them know there is a shortage," he said.
Committee member Ken Tarbox said he sympathizes with Berk-hahn's plight, but he also believes rangers should make efforts on their own to change rules on the Kenai. Tarbox noted that if regulations cannot be enforced he mentioned people snagging reds at nighttime as an example enforcement should bring a proposal forward to the Alaska Board of Fisheries to address the problem.
"Until there's a responsibility from this committee, I'd also like to see responsibility from enforcement at the same time," he said.
Following Berkhahn's report, the committee voted unanimously to send a letter to area legislators and State Parks Commissioner Gary Morrison, urging them to increase funding for park rangers on the river.
However, that appears rather unlikely. According to area Parks Superintendent Chris Degernes, the budget currently being mulled over in the Legislature proposes cuts of $350,000 to Parks' budget.
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