Answers to river issues elusive

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Last month's decision by the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to avoid a potential loss in court by rescinding an earlier moratorium on registering new Kenai River guides has put management of the river and its resources back to square one.

Still missing is a fair and legal way to ease frictions that have arisen between the various user groups competing for the river's finite resources its salmon and the experience fishers think ought to accompany catching them.

The now-lifted moratorium was to provide a period of time for the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation to do a comprehensive study of river crowding.

By freezing the number of river guides to those who held licenses in 2002, state parks officials sought to prevent large numbers of new guides from seeking grandfather rights by registering in anticipation of future restrictions.

At a Kenai River Special Man-agement Area meeting May 15 at the Kenai River Center, a private consultant working for the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation discussed the lengthy history of attempts to prevent overuse of the river resource and resolve conflicts among user groups.

"The Kenai River is among the most crowded places we've ever studied," said social scientist Doug Whittaker in an interview.

Whittaker is the owner of the Anchorage-based company Con-fluence Research and Consulting, which studies such things as human crowding and the conflicts it can cause.

The issues facing those attempting to resolve river-use problems are many and complex, he said. First, pressures on the river are increasing as more and more anglers descend on the Kenai.

Much of that growth comes from visitors to the state whose numbers are increasing faster than the state's own population, Whittaker said. Ten years ago, Alaska welcomed about 500,000 visitors. The state can expect 1.5 million visitors by 2010, he said.

"Half of those will come to Southcentral Alaska," Whittaker predicted, and many will spend some time hooking salmon in the river.

Serving roughly 80 percent of the visitors who head for the Kenai are the commercial guides making a living on the river. Whittaker said there is a perception among other anglers that guided fishers are taking more and better salmon than are left for others.

But is that perception reality or scapegoating?

"The easy answer is that if you limit guides, you will effectively limit out-of-state users," he said. "That might not be the panacea. The reason is that if Outside anglers can't get guides to go, they may rent boats and try it themselves. That might be worse."

At a minimum, guides have a public relations problem, he said.

Whittaker was among those who conducted the 1992 Carrying Capacity Study on the Kenai River, the first major effort to come to terms with the problems arising out of the growing popularity of the river among various fishing groups.

More recent data continues to show antipathy toward guides. He said he hears comments that guides seem to think they own the river, but Whittaker said he doesn't know the extent to which that view is held. People do complain about overcrowding in general and about interference with fishing lines, verbal threats and boat bumping, he said.

"Mostly it's verbal threats and dirty looks," he said. Documenting dirty looks "would be tough," he added.

Kenai area State Parks Superintendent Chris Degernes said there are 348 guides currently registered for the Kenai River. A study is needed that can determine such things as the relative effects of the total number of users and where, when and how fishing occurs.

"What kind of information do we need to know about guides that we don't have now?" she asked.

It would be good to know, for instance, whether people are seeing a concentration of guides in particular fishing holes, or if it is the way they operate their boats that is driving complaints.

They may be more aggressive about their pursuit of salmon, because to them it's not recreation, Degernes said.

She said it would be important for any future study to focus on exactly what is causing conflict. Safety concerns, such as whether boat operators are going too fast or coming too close to others would be one area on which to focus.

But so would learning whether guides are truly guilty of widespread poor behavior or if they're just easy scapegoats because they're so visible and because they happen to be good at their jobs, winning their visitor clients a greater percentage of the healthiest kings.

"Or is it that local people feel the resource is theirs and have a higher priority right to it?" she said. "The point is that there is no real easy answer. There are so many factors in how people perceive their river experience."

What the May 15 meeting didn't get to because of time constraints were ideas about where to go from here, now that there is no moratorium.

Whittaker said river users and state officials should consider research options because there are many holes in the existing data. That could be done with surveys as well as with observational studies.

"One issue is how do you observe people without them knowing it and is that really OK?" Whittaker said.

Neither surveys nor observation will answer all the questions, but they should answer some. Surveys can reveal how people feel about their own use of the river and that of competing groups. That is something previous studies have not done to a great degree, he said.

"I call it doing their homework," he said. "You have to do it to get a clearer sense if you have a crowding problem or a behavior problem, or both, and whether there is support for a fix."

Some problems might be fairly easy to fix, Whittaker said.

"That Le Mans start on Tuesday morning every launch in town is going nuts," he said. "You can fix some of that. Use staggered starts. It may be a bigger pain to administer, but it may get less contentiousness."

With so many guides, perhaps there could be agreement to fish at different times, he said.

"Those are all just options," he said. "We need to get some opinions from the general user population, not just stakeholders."

Perhaps the biggest unknown of all, however, has little to do with the information studies and surveys might collect, but whether a study can be done at all.

The 1992 carrying capacity study cost roughly $100,000, Whittaker said.

"I don't know if the Legislature has any such money for a study now," he said.

He said such information doesn't come cheaply and state officials should be careful about spending too little.

"You get what you pay for," Whittaker said.

Until a study is done and remedies that can meet legal muster are implemented, river users are likely to continue to face an increasing number of conflicts.

"This river is a gem, obviously. Because of that, people want to be out there. And because of that, they get in each others' way," Whittaker said.

Degernes said the May meeting wasn't meant to be a forum for designing a new study, but more to review what had been done and see where efforts might go from here. She, too, said a study hinges on funding.

"Without funding to do something, it's all just a discussion," she said.

The next meeting of the Kenai River Special Management Area is set for Sept. 18.

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