Come summer, the Kenai River becomes a recreational circus. King salmon fishermen clog the river with drift boats, motorboats and guided boats, sockeye salmon fishermen crowd the river’s banks and dipnetters flock to the river’s mouth. This frenzy of activity can bring fishing groups, landowners, nonfishing user groups and bears into conflict, and degrade the health of the river.
Managing recreational activities is a tricky balancing act, and regulation changes can erupt in enormous debate. In an effort to better understand the issues it is trying to manage, Alaska State Parks has launched a study surveying recreational users.
The first part of Kenai River Recreation Study began in May, with surveyors roaming Kenai River recreational areas and asking recreational users to fill out a short survey. The survey asks recreational users about their activities and to evaluate the impacts of various recreational uses and management actions that might be used to address problems.
“It’s a lot about what people think of those things, it’s not a lot about measuring, like, how much litter is out there,” said Doug Whittaker, a researcher with Confluence Research Consulting, a research firm contracted to conduct the study. “There aren’t a bunch of techs out studying bank erosion issues. But we do have questions that ask the public, ‘Is there too much bank erosion? Would you like something done about it? Do we need more closures? Do we need more boardwalks?’”
The survey will ask recreational users to evaluate the quality of their experiences on the river with questions about proximity between anglers and whether boats or boat wakes disrupt their activities. The study will not address fisheries issues, such as allocation, fishing regulations or escapement goals. The second phase of the study will begin in August when recreational users will receive longer surveys through e-mail or the mail. A random sample of property owners along the river and registered guides will also receive surveys during this period.
In addition to Parks, management of lands and activities along the river includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. These agencies are interested in the results of the survey, and Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service are allowing the survey to be conducted on federal lands adjacent to the river. Parks has asked these agencies for their input on some of the questions to be included in the second part of the survey.
Whittaker said he expects the response rate among recreational users asked to take the survey to be strong.
“We’re asking them about a place they care about,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to tell us what to do and they like that.”
In recent years, focus groups have helped Parks identify several public concerns regarding recreational use of the river. But Jack Sinclair, Parks superintendent for the Kenai and Prince William Sound area, said he expects to learn a lot more once the surveys are completed and reviewed.
“I’m very interested to see what happens,” he said. “I don’t have the Ouija board out for this one.”
Survey responses may be used to address issues that managers were not previously aware of, and help managers determine how to best handle some old issues, such as conflicts between bears and anglers, and concerns about the number of guides allowed to operate on the river. Whittaker and Sinclair stressed that the study does not focus on any single user group and should not be viewed as a study aimed at limiting guides.
Concerns over the number of guides, however, did provide some impetus for the study when a 2003 proposal to limit the number of guides on the Kenai River was challenged in court and failed. A remand from the Superior District Court of Alaska determined that the impacts of all users had to be evaluated as part of a study before state regulations could address any particular group’s impact.
In addition to being a necessary tool for regulating recreational use of the river, Whittaker said a user survey is key to uncovering and better understanding the issues that may emerge in any heavily utilized recreational area.
“This is just a responsible thing to do,” he said. “Survey your public every 10 or 15 years, find out all of your problems and deal with them.”
The study does not make decisions, but will provide information to managers who will take it and decide what to do with it, Whittaker said.
“Our job is to cover the full range of decisions they might make and let them know who’s going to be happy or unhappy with that kind of decision and what we think it might accomplish or not accomplish.”