Tahlequah Daily Press

February 19, 2014

Float operator wants to nix division rule

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — An area float operator is asking the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission to consider eliminating the rule governing commercial float areas along the Illinois River.

Jack Spears, owner of Arrowhead Resort, told commissioners Tuesday night the regulation is outdated and should be reconsidered.

Currently, the Illinois River is divided into three commercial float areas: Zone 1, which runs from Lake Frances to Round Hollow and covers 27.7 miles of river; Zone 2, which runs from Round Hollow to Combs Bridge, a distance of 8 miles and the most densely floated area on the river; and Zone 3, which runs from Combs Bridge to Barren Fork, about 30 miles.

“This rule was made to keep one operator from moving permits into another area,” said Spears. “That operator is no longer a threat.”

Spears, whose business is in Zone 2, contends doing away with the rule will help the OSRC, which has faced steady budget cuts over the past decade. In a letter to commissioners, Spears said the total number of permits not granted since 2009 – the year the flat $35 fee per license was introduced – totals 1,188. Many smaller operators in Zones 1 and 3 are requesting fewer permits, as the cost increase went into effect.

“Had all of those permits been granted, it would total $41,580,” wrote Spears. “Apply this revenue to the total loss in appropriations for the same period, $74,007, and it would leave a deficit of $32,427, or $6,485 each year. This is certainly a more manageable number when utilizing conservative and creative budgeting.”

Commissioner Gerald Hilsher clarified Spears’ request by asking if Spears wanted the commission to eliminate commercial float areas.

“I’m asking you to begin the procedure,” said Spears. “It’s a rule that needs to be eliminated. I think it will help the OSRC financially. You’re not selling permits because they’re allocated to the lower end of the river.”

Hilsher pointed out the extensive process involved in changing the rules – including public hearings, extra meetings, a vote by the commission, and ultimately, a vote by the Legislature.

“Jack, you brought this up in December and last spring,” said Hilsher. “I suggested last spring you report back to us if any other commercial operators believe like you do that we should eliminate the CFAs. We may have our own views, but it’s always good to have input coming in before beginning a lengthy process, especially considering out budgetary considerations. We all understand your sentiment, but what do the other operators think?”

Spears said he has six of the 11 float operators on board to sign a petition indicating they are not opposed to nixing the rule, but added that he is not at liberty to divulge names.

“Not having opposition is different than being adamantly in favor of something,” said Hilsher. “I’d be more impressed with someone telling me why they think it’s a good idea. Your argument is that we’re leaving money on the table; this would be more quickly addressed by reinstating user fees. Part of the negative effect on the river is people and density. This raft explosion puts more people in a boat that pays the same amount for a license as a canoe. It doesn’t make sense to me in the overall scheme of things. If truly the concern is getting our law enforcement money to make it the river enjoyable, selling a few more permits to put people on the river on rafts is problematic.”

Commissioner John Larson moved the commission take no action, which was seconded by Hilsher. A number of commissioners suggested Spears’ provide more information, and to ask his fellow operators to attend the next meeting.

In other business, OSRC Ranger Capt. Bill James said due to budget cuts, he’s refocusing his efforts for the coming tourist season.

“This year, it’s not looking good,” said James. “We have three of our five vehicles out of commission, and it’s going to cost $3,000 to repair them. All of our rangers are part time and part of our problem is the volume of calls we receive on a Saturday afternoon. The district attorney doesn’t want us investigating, as he has his own investigators. So this year, we’re not taking any calls on private property. We’re going to dedicate our time solely on the river. I’m hoping to have eight rangers, but will probably end up with five. I’m going to meet with the sheriff and let him know they’re going to have to pick up the calls on private property. We had a rape on last year, and the sheriff’s office didn’t answer the calls or show up. I’ve voiced my grievance about that, and to get around it, we won’t take the calls. We’ll back them up, but we won’t be the first to respond.”