Tahlequah Daily Press

March 6, 2014

Spears: OSRC should help boost business

Final in a two-part series about recreation and environmental concerns on the Illinois River

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — In a little over 25 years, Arrowhead Resort owner Jack Spears has grown his business from being the smallest float operator on the Illinois River to the second-largest, and he’d like to continue on that path.

Spears believes tourism is vital to the Tahlequah area. He says if the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission would eliminate a zoning issue along the river, both the agency and his own business would reap the benefits.

Spears recently asked the OSRC to consider doing away with recreational floating zones. Commercial flotation device licenses are granted to operators in each area for a total of 3,900 licenses. The areas include Zone 1, which runs from the Oklahoma/Arkansas state line to the Round Hollow public access area, about 28 miles, and includes 205 CFDLs; Zone 2, from Round Hollow to Combs Bridge, or about 8 miles, which includes 2,368 CFDLs; and Zone 3, from Combs Bridge to the confluence of the Barren Fork Creek, about 23 miles, which is allotted 1,327.

Spears believes since a new law was passed several years ago changing the CFDL fee from $5 to $35, and eliminating the $1 per-person user fee remitted to the OSRC, requests for those licenses in Zones 1 and 3 have decreased. This, he says, has affected revenue for the agency. He believes eliminating the zones would allow him to purchase more licenses, and the OSRC would gain badly-needed revenue.

“When [former State Sen. Jim] Wilson went to the $35, he calculated the money the OSRC brought in per permit and came up with the $35 figure to match the previous revenue,” Spears said. “If they would sell all 3,900 permits, they would have that amount. There were 578 permits not granted, which is over $20,000 in potential income for OSRC.”

OSRC Administrator Ed Fite calculated that since instituting the $35 per-CFDL, per-year fee, Spears has gone from having $22,000 per-year operating costs to $9,000 per year. Over the five years since the law was enacted and user fees were eliminated, Spears has saved $60,000. And over the past five years, the number of permits requested by smaller operators in Zones 1 and 3 has decreased.

During the February OSRC meeting, Elephant Rock Camp owner Rod Foster, whose operation is in Zone 3, said he preferred remitting the $1 user fees and having $5 CFDL permits.

“The primary purpose of the OSRC is environmental protection,” said Foster during the meeting. “If we open more permits in a congested area, it's not environmentally sound. It’s not a good idea, not a good concept. Even if I were interested in growth, I can’t grow at $35 per CFDL. I also believe the $1 user fees help the OSRC track the boating traffic.”

Foster said the OSRC is the governing agency charged with setting forth the guidelines for the river.

“And trying to change those guidelines to benefit one outfitter would be wrong,” he said.

Foster also believes the established zones help visitors identify where they’d like to float.

“We’re working to establish ourselves as a family-friendly operation,” said Foster. “Everyone knows Zone 2 is the party zone. We want folks to know there are parts of the river where you can float on the weekends and bring your kids.”

OSRC commissioners, as well as members of Save The Illinois River Inc., are concerned about having more floaters in Zone 2, which is a congested area during the summer months.

Spears believes the number of permits issued to each area is where the problem began, and he faults the OSRC for oversight.

“Once they set up the three zones, [the OSRC] arbitrarily set up the number of permits in each area,” said Spears. “You can’t put 2,368 licenses in a single zone and not expect it to be congested. The OSRC created the congestion.”

Spears said that when he moved his float operation from Thunderbird, in the central part of Zone 2, upriver to Arrowhead, he moved 20,000 guests into the less-congested area of Zone 2.

“But then, when we requested temporary permits for [Zone 1], we were told no,” he said.

Fite and OSRC commissioners pointed out the agency is charged with protecting the environmental concerns of the river, are not meant to promote commercial businesses – and by extension, the tourism industry.

Spears thinks some commissioners would prefer to not have any floaters on the river.

“They are an environmental agency, and tourism is not of any interest to them,” said Spears. “What they’d like to see is a 6-foot hurricane fence with razor wire on top put around the banks of the river for guests to peer through, but not be on it. I think that’s the way some of them believe.”

Spears said float operators are a vital source of income to the area.

“When you look at the $20 million we bring in, the people we employ, and the state taxes we pay, we generate a lot for this area that’s very important. The river recreation business is an industry.”

Spears pointed out the Oklahoma Legislature is reviewing the OSRC for consolidation under the Department of Tourism.

“I’m not so sure that it’s not such a bad idea,” said Spears. “They would then be promoting tourism and not fighting us every time we turn around. The legislators are going to look at the fact that they’re not trying to become self-sufficient and cover the loss in appropriations.”

Spears said float operators should not be responsible for funding the OSRC.

“To date, we’ve provided them $2.75 million in user fees, yet that’s not our job,” he said.

Spears said he’s a founding member of STIR and is also concerned about the environment.

“But you’re not protecting the river when you overload a zone and don’t fix the problem,” said Spears.

Spears claims six of the 11 float operators do not oppose his request for eliminating the zones. The Daily Press left messages for several float operators in Zones 1 and 2, but calls were unreturned by press time.