River guides get reprieve

Working group's limitation policy at least a year away

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2004

Finding a way to limit Kenai River fishing guides is proving to be a time-consuming project.

The Kenai River Working Group, which earlier this year was created by Alaska State Parks Director Gary Morrison with the intention of coming up with a plan to limit guides, met for most of the day Friday the group's fourth such meeting so far.

Despite the long hours being put in by the group, however, any limits to the number of guides operating on the river are still at least a year away.

"If we're going to change life drastically for (the guides), they'll get at least a year's notice," Kenai River Center Director Suzanne Fisler said Friday.

The long lead time needed to implement a guide limitation policy isn't the only hurdle for the working group to overcome. The biggest challenge for the group will be to come up with something that will stand up to court challenges.

Last year, a proposal by the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board to place a moratorium on new guides and cap the number at 346 guides the number registered on the Kenai in 2003 crumbled in the face of pending lawsuits.

This time around, Fisler said the Department of Law is participating fully with the group to ensure that anything coming out of the meetings will stand up in court.

"We've been lucky to have the Department of Law involved since the get-go," she said.

Finding a guide limitation plan that's defensible in court won't be easy. John Baker with the Department of Law said Friday that in order for anything to go forward, the state must demonstrate that the recreational experience on the Kenai has suffered.

That is only the first step. The group also must have reasons why it settles on whatever number of guides it allows on the river.

"How do you arrive at that number?" Baker asked. "That's the tricky part."

Working group member Dwight Kramer said he believes showing there's a problem with too many guides shouldn't be as hard as it's being made out to be.

"We've had several studies that have said the No. 1 issue is too many guides," Kramer said.

That being said, however, there will no doubt be plenty of discussion over exactly where the number of guides should be set. Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said whatever number the group decides on, they must back their finding up with solid evidence.

"There needs to be a discussion theoretically of how you're getting to a number if it's lower than the number now," Gease said.

Despite the obstacles facing a guide limitation program, Fisler said she's encouraged by the work that's been done so far by the group. A number of proposals have been discussed, including limited entry, a permit drawing system, guide licensing programs and others, and the group has been able to discuss the issue in depth with plenty of input brought forward.

"This meeting was a real good example of people expressing different points of view," she said.

Fisler said she's confident the group will be able to come up with something that can be brought back to Morrison and praised him for having the foresight to bring the working group together.

"I'm glad to see the commissioner did recognize this was an important issue to the Kenai River Special Management Area, the industry and the community," she said.

The working group is made up of representatives from a variety of interest groups with a stake in the river, including Kenai River Professional Guides Association President Steve McClure and board member Joe Hanes; unaffiliated guides Andrew Szczesny and Ronald Weilbacher; Will Josey of the Kenai River Property Owners Association; Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee Chair Dwight Kramer; rental boat business owner John Cho; multiple guide business owner Kirk Hoessle; KRSMA board member Ted Wellman and Commercial Operators Committee member Joe Connors; sport anglers Jim Golden and Porter Pollard; Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Pete Sprague; and KRSA representative Reuben Hanke.

The next working group meetings will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 29 and 8 a.m. Dec. 30 at the Kenai River Center. The meetings are open to the public.

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