More than 50 people crowded into the Kenai River Center's main meeting room Thursday to tell the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board how to alleviate congestion on the peninsula's largest river.
Specifically, they were there to give public testimony on a proposed moratorium that would put a freeze on the number of guide permits issued next year on the river. The proposal was brought to the board's attention in a letter sent by the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Pat Pourchot, on Oct. 16.
Before the public had a chance to speak, Jim Stratton, director of the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, gave a brief overview of the issues involved with a moratorium from the state's point of view.
Stratton said there are legal hurdles involved that might make limiting the number of guides more difficult than it may appear.
"The concept of limiting guides in the Kenai River isn't new," Stratton said.
He noted that in 1991, an effort to limit guides was shot down when the Alaska Attorney General's office deemed a limited entry system unconstitutional. However, he said a moratorium on new guide permits might allow the state to look at several alternatives for limiting guides, while not allowing their numbers to increase.
"We felt it was necessary to put a cap on the number of people who are guiding right now. It's a timeout, if you will," he said.
Before testimony began, board chair Ted Wellman stressed that the board had no regulatory power to limit guides and could only advise the state on the matter.
Public testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the moratorium, with the majority of testimony coming from guides themselves.
"Here's something that we all agree on," said Soldotna guide Mel Erickson. "We need to somehow get those numbers down. The moratorium, I guess that's a good way to start."
The one thing everyone agreed upon was the fact that the Kenai River is overcrowded, especially during peak king salmon fishing season in July. However, not everyone agreed that simply limiting guides would significantly alleviate the crowding.
Several people brought up the fact that any guide limits on the Kenai would potentially impact other peninsula waters.
"What's going to happen to the Kasilof?" asked Ben Ellis of Soldotna.
Ellis also noted that a moratorium could potentially result in more permitted guides actively fishing their permits in anticipation of any limited-entry system that might be imposed.
Another problem with a moratorium, some people pointed out, would be the chance that illegal guiding and other commercial enterprises would move in to replace the guides.
"Why are not rental boats included in this? That's a guiding activity," said Soldotna guide Rod Berg.
Another problem might be that guide service operators who hire several guides to run their boats might be out of luck if a moratorium meant they couldn't hire new guides.
"My business and my property might end up going to the bank," said Mel Krogseng, owner of Krog's Kamp Guide Service, which operates several boats on the Kenai.
Krogseng said she'd be opposed to a limited-entry system for guides. Instead, she said she favored a plan that would require guides to undergo extensive training before being granted a permit.
Poor river etiquette, Krogseng argued, is the biggest problem on the Kenai these days.
"It only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel," she said.
The constitutionality of limiting access to the river also was pointed out as a potential hurdle to limiting guide numbers.
"We have a resource here that's a common property resource," said Dale Bondurant of Soldotna. "You can't limit access to that resource."
In the end, no one at Thursday's meeting had proposed much of a solution to the crowding issue on the river. However, most agreed that the advisory board had a good opportunity to take a step toward bringing the number of guides down.
"I wish you a lot of luck," said Berg. "Overwhelmingly, the public is in favor of limiting guides. Let's do it."
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