Permit moratorium positive step toward protecting our river

Posted: Sunday, December 01, 2002

The two-year moratorium on new Kenai River guide permits is a necessary step in dealing with an increasingly crowded river.

Even most guides agree it's the right thing to do. A crowded river diminishes the quality of a Kenai River fishing experience for humans, not to mention the harm it does to the river and its fish.

The moratorium, however, does not solve any of the much-loved Kenai's problems. In fact, some predict the moratorium temporarily could lead to more crowding as the Kenai's 346 registered guides jockey for position, while the issue undergoes more study.

The fact is some tough decisions need to be made regarding the Kenai River. How best to address crowding on the river is just one of them. Others include how best to deal with increasing development along the river, how best to balance economic concerns with environmental ones and how best to protect the river's water quality.

The unanswered question is do we, as a community, care enough about the river to make those tough decisions that will protect the Kenai and its 27 species of fish not just during our lifetimes, but in the lifetimes of those who follow us.

Of course, we all say we do. We know a healthy river is key to the quality of life we enjoy on the peninsula, and we've fiercely debated the health of the river since at least the early 1980s.

We haven't been all talk and no action either.

The Kenai River Special Management Area and its advisory board were established because of that debate. Some licensing requirements for guides were adopted. A 35-horsepower limit on boat motors was instituted. The borough adopted a habitat protection ordinance.

Today it's not unusual to close heavily trampled -- and therefore, damaged -- fishing banks to protect habitat. Boardwalks have been installed in many places to reduce riverbank erosion. The Kenai River Center has been built, making it easier to learn to do what's right by the river. The Kenai River Watershed Forum diligently works to educate the public about the river and to protect this jewel of a resource. The Kenai River Festival has become a community tradition that celebrates the river and gently reminds us of our responsibility to keep it healthy.

However, as the Kenai's popularity continues to increase and development pressures mount, we can't help but wonder if much of what we do supposedly for the river's sake isn't a cover to make us feel good.

Can we really protect the river and its fish without personal sacrifice?

The borough's habitat protect ordinance is a good example. Like the moratorium on guides, the ordinance is a good step. But the ordinance did not go as far as scientists said was necessary to protect the river and its watershed. How long can we ignore the scientific evidence without irreparably damaging the river?

Complicating the issues of crowds, development and water quality are the philosophical arguments over how the river and its fish should be managed. Do we put people's desires over the needs of the fish? Should residents be given priority to fish over nonresidents? How do we create both a healthy economy and a healthy environment?

Will we know we've gone too far before we get there?

A lot has been learned in the last two decades. Chief among the lessons is that human actions do affect the Kenai, for better or for worse.

That's why the moratorium on guides should be applauded, but it should be remembered it is only one small step in alleviating crowding on the river.

And crowding on the river is only one of many issues that needs to be addressed in order to keep the Kenai River "the king of Alaska's rivers," as the most recent Alaska magazine described it.

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