Kenai dipnetters should get free ride to fish

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2007

The good things in life may be free, but often there’s a toll booth before you get to them.

That’s the case with dipnetting in the city of Kenai. Catching up with running reds in July will cost you at the mouth of the Kenai River, in the form of parking fees at the north and south Kenai beaches and a boat launch fee at the city facility.

Kenai’s council is contemplating making this good thing, at least, truly free for city residents by waiving fees or at least offering discounts for all city residents.

Whether to do so is a question with financial, philosophical and legal facets.

Financially it makes sense to cut Kenai residents a break on boat launching and parking fees during dipnetting, since those residents are the ones who have supplied the tax dollars to operate the fishery.

The fish may be free, but there’s a lot of costs associated with the thousands of people who come after them, for which the city foots the bill. Kenai beefs up its law enforcement during dipnetting to provide for the safety and order of all. Even so, accidents happen, and when they do it’s the emergency personnel on the city’s payroll who come to the rescue.

The city pays to put in and keep up extra restroom facilities at the north and south beaches, and incurs extra maintenance costs at its boat launch from the additional traffic. Even when the fishermen leave they don’t take all the bills with them. The city still must pay to clean up the garbage left behind and restore the beaches to the state they were in before the fish and fishermen invaded.

The city didn’t ask for this financial burden. It was dumped on Kenai by the state. To cover the extra costs the city instituted fees on parking and boat launching during dipnetting. As the fishery’s popularity has grown, so has the costs associated with it and also the amount of money the city makes off it. It’s at the point now where the city makes more than it pays to operate the fishery, and the profit goes into the city’s general fund.

Extra money in the city’s coffers is a benefit for residents, but they deserve more. Even though dipnetting has ceased to be a financial burden on Kenai, it still diverts city employees’ time and energy from work that directly benefits residents. Those employees are meant to provide public works and maintenance services for those who pay their salaries, yet during the end of July attention is directed at visitors, not taxpayers.

In a philosophical sense there’s two precedents at work here. One is that Outsiders are charged a higher rate to access Alaska’s resources than residents are. Fishing licenses cost more for out-of-staters, and they’re not even allowed to dipnet. That standard applied to this issue paves the way for giving local residents a free ride to the fish, whereas out-of-towners are charged for parking and boat launching.

On the other hand, Alaska operates on the idea that the state’s natural resources belong to all residents. We all get a share of oil profits in the form of the permanent fund dividend, though most of us don’t live with oil rigs in our backyards. Everyone is welcome to harvest the fruits, fish and game of our land, or at least be governed by the same rules regulating that harvest.

The fish entering the Kenai River don’t belong to Kenai residents any more than they do to residents of Kasilof, Kake or Ketchikan. The dipnet harvest area doesn’t even belong to the city. The beaches below the tide line and the water in the river channel where dipnetting takes place is governed by the public trust doctrine, meaning it’s open to all users.

That’s where the legal issue comes in. The city’s administration is wrestling with whether it is discriminatory to give free access to city residents and charge others.

What’s key here is the city isn’t charging for access to the fish, it’s charging for use of its facilities. The boat launch, restrooms and parking lots are on city property and the city pays to maintain them.

Anyone who wants to walk to the beach, be dropped off or launch their boat from a different site is welcome to do so and avoid the city’s fees. If you don’t use the city’s facilities, the only costs in the way of filling your freezer are your net, fishing license and perhaps some reading material to keep you occupied when the fish aren’t running.

With that in mind, the city would be wise to find a way to waive parking and boat launching fees for city residents or at least give them as much of a discount as legally possible.

Kenai residents already pay for their public works crews, police officers, rescue personnel and river facilities, and put up with those resources being utilized largely for the benefit of out-of-towners during the dipnet fishery. If they want to make use of what they’ve already paid for, they should be free to do so.

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