Guide's license lapse causes flap

Don Johnson, Coast Guard, Alaska DNR try to resolve permit dispute

Posted: Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Soldotna fishing guide was issued a violation Friday by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for allegedly illegally guiding passengers for hire in a power boat on the Kenai River without the proper license, said Sara Francis, petty officer for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The guide, Don Johnson, owner of Alaska Don's guide service, said it is a misunderstanding and he did not read the fine print on his license.

The license he needs to legally take passengers for hire in a power boat expired five years ago, Francis said.

Alaska river guides are required to have a freshwater guide license to operate a power boat with passengers for hire which is issued by the Coast Guard. The license must be renewed every five years. For the Alaska DNR to issue a commercial operators permit to operate a power boat for hire in state park waters, a guide must have the license.

Johnson has had his Coast Guard license — or an equivalent one — since 1980, said Lt. James Smith, acting supervisor of the regional exam center for the Coast Guard in Anchorage. However, when it expired in 2000, he renewed it for contingency purposes only, Smith said. Johnson did not do a full renewal of the license at that time and was not allowed to legally work as a guide since, he said.

A contingency license is designed to give guides a grace period on a full license renewal without having to start the licensing process from scratch, Francis said. This type of license does not allow a person to continue to take passengers for hire with a power boat, she said.

In addition, Francis said Johnson's contingency license expired June 13 and he was operating with no Coast Guard license at all when he was contacted by officials Friday.

The matter is still under investigation and Johnson is not allowed to take passengers for hire on his power boat, Francis said.

She said the violation was discovered when Johnson went to renew his Coast Guard license earlier this summer.

Johnson said he never intended to apply for a contingency license five years ago and that the Coast Guard mixed up the paperwork. He said it is the Coast Guard's mistake.

In an attempt to renew in 2000, he said the Coast Guard sent him the wrong paperwork and he did not look at it closely enough.

"It's a cycle of misunderstandings," Johnson said.

Although Coast Guard officials say the back of the license says it is a continuity license and Johnson signed for it, Johnson said he never read the back of the license to see what type it was.

Now, he said he is trying to resolve the issue.

The DNR did not realize that Johnson's license was invalid, said Suzanne Fisler, natural resource specialist with DNR's division of parks and outdoor recreation.

Alaska State Parks has renewed his guide permit for the past five years "without us understanding there was an issue with that," Fisler said.

"We didn't recognize that to mean that this was probationary or temporary," she said.

Fisler added that the DNR has had a long-term relationship with Johnson and they never had false documentation before.

The DNR is not a license expert and it is not their fault, Francis said. However, she said Johnson has been a guide for more than 20 years and should be well aware of the licensing process.

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