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DNR backs off on river guide rules


06/08/07 By Howard Meyerson Press Outdoors Editor [email protected]

It shouldn't be much of a surprise to West Michigan fishing guides that the DNR has announced its intent to enforce the two-year-old rules that require them to get a state permit.

But it may come as a surprise that the DNR is backing off, opting for an "incremental" approach rather than an aggressive one.

In fact, the agency is backing off so much that only guides working certain rivers need to pay heed to the rules.

"We are requiring permits only for guides that work on designated natural rivers," the DNR's natural rivers program manager, Steve Sutton, said. "Those are rivers where we have a management plan that addresses how they are used.

"We've re-looked at the impact that fishing guides have on our facilities and resources and found them to be really minimal, so we are backing off."

Who needs the permits

That means guides working the Muskegon River don't need to apply for a permit, but guides working the Rogue River and the Flat River will need to. The list of designated natural rivers includes those and the AuSable, Betsie, Boardman, Fox, Huron, Jordan, Lower Kalamazoo, Pere Marquette, Pigeon, Pine, Rifle, Two-Hearted, Upper Manistee and White rivers.

The state launched the permit program in 2006. Officials hoped it would tell them just how much commercial business is conducted on state land, how many were doing so and the extent of their negative impact.

The users included fishing guides, horse stables, canoe liveries, film makers and more. Big commercial events, like road rallies, also would need permits.

Permits have been required since the 1970s, but the rules were inconsistently enforced within the DNR, which finally developed a uniform definition of "commercial use" in 2001.

Agency staff in 2005 began informing user-groups that the program would start in 2006. Year one would involve education. Year two would involve law enforcement. Not having a guide permit is a civil infraction with fine as high as $500.

Concerns over the approach

Anglers may initially see this slowdown as good news, but the limited approach has its problems.

First, it doesn't address the agency intent to know just who and how many guides operate on state lands. Fishing guides operate on more than the 16 rivers that have natural river designation.

The new approach also makes the permit system more complex. It requires a guide to know the exact boundaries of the natural river designations. Initially, they simply needed to know if they used a state launch site or not and if the other guy in the boat was a paying customer.

This latter problem is by the absence of good, widely available visual reference materials that show those precise boundaries and the ambiguous understanding that guides now have about what is expected of them.

"The only maps of the natural river segments are those on-line and admittedly they are not the best maps," Sutton said. "Guides would be better off picking up the phone and talking to us. "

Sutton's number is (517) 241-2054. Driftboat guides who want information about the permit itself are asked to call Lindsey Dowlyn, a DNR staffer working as the point-person for the project. Her number is (989) 732-3541.

Early on, the DNR announced that if it found certain commercial uses to have a small impact on state property or facilities, it might decide that a fee or permit was unnecessary.

To the agency's credit, that appears to be the case. Guides can relax about how much they will pay for a permit, which were initially estimated to go as high as $1,000 a year if their operation was large.

Not only were the fees revised and lowered for this season, but the DNR has opted to call it a "lease" arrangement.

"It's a five year lease on these designated rivers," said Sutton. It's $200 for the first year and $100 a year each of the next four years."

While this is good news for river guides who waited to apply for a permit, it may be the sugar coating on a bitter pill for those Muskegon River guides and others who responsibly signed up for the program last year and paid the higher fees.

"We may discover in a year or two that we need to do more, but for now we decided to tip-toe into it," Sutton said.

Dave Spalding, the lands use program leader for the DNR said staffers will be meeting with various affected user groups this season to both inform and clarify the program details.

He said that law enforcement officials have been given the go ahead to start writing tickets.

"There were a few incidents last year," Spalding said. "But we were not actively enforcing the rule. We gave a lot of advice out to folks that they needed a permit, but direction has come down to start enforcing this year.

"Conservation officers may be checking at public access sites and road endings, especially in the northern two-thirds of the state. And forest officers and state park officers will be checking too."

Fishing guides should consider themselves forwarned.
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