DNR rescinds moratorium on Kenai River

More study, input needed; KRSMA advisory board unhappy with decision

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

Kenai area State Parks Super-intendent Chris Degernes was not happy to be the bearer of bad news Thursday evening at the monthly meeting of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board.

"I was not happy about being the messenger," Degernes said, following her announcement that the commissioner of the Depart-ment of Natural Resources had decided to rescind a guide moratorium on Kenai River fishing guides.

"I felt the commissioner's office should be here."

However, no one from commissioner Tom Irwin's office was at the meeting. So it fell to Degernes to inform the board -- and the public -- that the moratorium, which the board spent months of public testimony and debate on, would not be allowed to go through.

Most were not pleased.

"In Genghis Khan's day, we would have sent your head back," said Soldotna resident Dick Hahn -- jokingly -- during the public comment period.

Hahn's sentiments were shared by many on the advisory board. Many expressed frustration that the board had once again failed to convince the state that putting a cap on guides is essential to the board's overall objectives.

"To me, it's pretty disheartening," said board member Ted Wellman. "It gets right down to the end and the rug gets yanked out from under us."

The "rug" was yanked from beneath the board's feet late Thursday afternoon, when the state announced it had reached a settlement with several businesses and individuals who filed a lawsuit in Alaska Superior Court challenging the moratorium.

In a one-page press release, commissioner Irwin stated the state had agreed not to pursue any limits on Kenai guides until further study is done on the issue, and the public has more opportunity to comment.

"No further administrative action will be taken to impose a cap or moratorium on the number of KRSMA guide permits issued until the study has been completed and a proposal for any further administrative action has been made, subject to public comment," the release stated.

Degernes explained that the department had decided to settle the lawsuits instead of facing a potential loss in court.

She said that in settling the suits, the state wanted to avoid a situation where the court could impose permanent restrictions on the board's ability to impose guide limits in the future.

"The decision makes no ruling on the merits of the case," she said. "DNR's existing authority is not affected."

KRSMA board members were not thrilled with the state's position.

Wellman described the decision not to fight the lawsuits as "wimping out," and asked if the board might seek outside legal counsel when attempting to push through similar measures in the future. Degernes said the state's attorney general's office was the only option the board has for seeking legal opinions.

Board member Joe Connors, who also is president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Asso-ciation, said he also is upset with the state's decision to rescind the moratorium.

"I, too, feel frustrated," he said. "I'm trying to figure out how to do it differently than we've done."

Many in Connors' group testified in favor of the moratorium during public hearings on the proposal last year.

The majority of guides themselves said they believe the Kenai is overcrowded and needs some limit placed on the number of new guides entering the fishery.

Kenai guide Mel Erickson testified at Thursday's meeting. He said he thinks the commissioner's decision not only hurts that effort, but also will actually increase the number of guides who buy a permit for the 2003 season.

"It opens it up the floodgates to have a zillion more guides rushing in," Erickson said.

The possibility that people may speculate on guide permits on the chance that guide limits will eventually be imposed didn't sit well with board member Paul Shadura.

"I really am distraught that the influx of speculators will come from Outside and the Lower 48," Shadura said.

Also not pleasing to the board was the provision in the settlement that further study is needed before any guide limits can be imposed. Degernes said such a study would likely cost at least $140,000 -- money not currently in DNR's budget.

Board member Jonne Slemons said she thinks such a comprehensive study on the issue might even cost more.

"I would be surprised if $140,000 is sufficient," she said.

Degernes told the board that until the money is found, neither the moratorium -- or any other guide limits imposed by DNR -- can go forward.

"The acquisition of funding will determine how much longer it takes," she said.

Hahn said he believes DNR should be responsible for finding the money for a study somehow.

"Usually when bureaucrats give a directive to do a study, somehow it should be funded by those people who issued such orders," Hahn told the board. "It should be at least part of their responsibility to fund Parks to make sure it happens."

However, just the thought of further study on limiting guides seemed to irk many board members.

"We've been studying this thing to death," Wellman said.

Board member Jim Golden was even more forthcoming.

"Nobody can stop these commercial operations?" he asked. "I don't understand that."

In the end, board members acknowledged there's little that can be done this year to curb the number of Kenai guides. Most simply resigned themselves to taking another shot at some kind of plan, pledging to continue fighting for some way to limit guides.

"We need to stay working together, stay focused," Connors said. "The vast majority of guides do want to do it right."

Connors, however, does not speak for the entire guide community. Soldotna's Mel and Bob Krogseng, who own Krog's Kamp in Soldotna, were one of the plaintiffs who filed suit against DNR and the Division of Parks.

Mel Krogseng said Thursday she believes the moratorium is unconstitutional and punishes operations that must hire guides to take her lodge visitors fishing.

"I think the (court's) decision would have been that it's unconstitutional," Krogseng said. "Had this not been resolved, I was prepared to carry this straight through to the state Supreme Court."

Krogseng said there are other ways of reducing guide numbers -- such as increasing guide fees or requirements -- that wouldn't place a burden on businesses such as hers.

"There are other ways to lessen the numbers without violating the constitution," she said.

Furthermore, Krogseng said if a moratorium were enacted, new guides hoping to get into the business would no longer have that opportunity.

"I don't want to see the young people have happen to them what happened in the commercial fishing business," she said. "It's a public use resource."

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