At this spring's Board of Game meeting in Fairbanks, Bobby Fithian, representing the Alaska Professional Hunters Association, was asked to give an update on the guide concession program. I've transcribed his oral testimony of Feb 28, 2010, here it is, with some comments of mine afterward:
Fithian/APHA: "We are moving forward. DNR came out with a proposed program and proposed selection criteria, I believe it was in December. And it’s been a public comment period allow people to comment on it. That comment period has now been extended to March. The legislature, the governor’s office, put in a 250,000 dollar budget request to the legislature. Through some miscommunication that was cut to 120,000. That 120,000 dollars was approved on the House side of the finance DNR subcommittee last week. I will tell you that we are asking for additional funds and staff positions for that, for the program.
And most importantly, related to the program and the comments you’ve been hearing, I’ll address them two ways. First of all, through the current concession program, there are 244 business opportunities provided within that program, and it’s important to take into consideration that BLM will probably enter into this program with a master Memorandum of Understanding. They have showed their willingness from the beginning. Subsequently, when the guide industry came together and looked at trying to figure out how many, the regionalization of this program, the number of operators that each region would provide for a long term sustainable purpose, that’s where the 244 concession numbers came from, but primarily on state lands.
So, there wasn’t a good focus on the BLM lands, mostly those are in the western and northwest part of the state. So we’ll probably see a slight increase in those business opportunities to maybe somewheres near 260. It might flesh out around 250 or so. There’s currently near 200 federal concession programs and business opportunities in the state under the Dept of Ag, Forest Service lands, under Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Refuge and National Park Service Preserve. There is no number that I can give you related to private lands, but I think currently, this is my best guess, we’re looking at about 35 existing private land use authorizations. And probably within a few years we’ll be seeing that near double.
So, last year there were 305 contracting guides, guides that actually signed contracts and facilitated booked hunts. When you compare the number of the concession opportunities, state, federal, BLM, private lands, you’ll see that there’s at least near two business opportunities for every guide that contracted hunts last year. There’s a lot of guides that contracted hunts last year that operate on one land use authorization, or one concession. So the numbers you’re hearing about putting all these people out of business, we just can’t find the validity to that. [my emphasis]
Then, the big mistake that I think has happened to date that’s kinda thrown a question mark into the whole program was that DNR came out with subject selection criteria and subject program management criteria that we would rate at a C-minus if we were to give it a grade. But we’re in the public process and we believe, APHA firmly believes, that we can make encouragement and make recommendations to DNR to adopt and develop a program that will raise that C-minus to a B-plus. We’d like to get them to an A and I feel that we can do that through the public process.
And they have heard our concerns, they’ve heard a lot of concerns about the fee bidding, we want that out of there. The recommendations from the Big Game Commercial Services Board DNR land subcommittee requested that. APHA submitted 21 pages of comments on the program just a few days ago. I’ll have them posted on the website for your review, if you wanna take them and read through them there’s some really good comments in there. And, Mr. Chairman, if I am not taking too much of your time, I’d like to expand on one of those comments that directly relates to the Board and the Department."
Chair Judkins: "Go ahead."
Fithian/APHA: "Thank you. On the federal concession program on the Park Service side we have a post-season report requirement. So every year we have to compare what our plan of operations, our harvest objectives were within our plan of operations, to the actual numbers of clients we took and what our harvest was. And we also relate in there any accident injury concerns that may have happened, and we get graded on our performance in relation to our proposed business plan.
And I think that we’ve been missing a real good opportunity for the Department and for the Board, through that process, and I’m encouraging the post-season report process to be taken up under the DNR concession program. And it includes anecdotal information from every guide that participates in the program. We’re not asking ‘em to show their harvestable surpluses, for good reasons, but I think it’s important that they show annually their cow:calf ratios, their ewe:lamb ratios, their range nutritional concerns they see, land and water concerns, and that data be given to ADFG regularly, and it will give you, although anecdotal information, it’ll give the Department a real good annual view in what’s happening in broad spectrums of the state where we currently don’t have funding to do the science gathering that we need. So I think that’s a real important aspect of it that we haven’t capitalized on in the past but needs to be included. I think I’ll conclude my comments with that, thank you."
Questions from the Board
Bradley/BOG: "Bobby could you expand a little on the fee bidding you’re talking about, you guys weren’t happy about that, and maybe the criteria, you gave them a C-minus, what the differences are there you want to see changed."
Fithian/APHA: "We don’t like the concept that a person can win a concession through the amount of funding he provides to the state for that concession. We think that the selection criteria should be primarily based on stewardship-related factors, how that person is going to work withing the confines of prudent conservation, prudent social atmosphere, his history of compliance, those important factors. And I’ll just use this as an example, think about a person conducting a guided hunt down on a float trip, and he won the concession, and he’s doing the float trip with a husband and wife in a rubber raft. And the river’s got him turned around and he’s headed for a waterfall, and the client and his wife are looking at him and they ask him, “Have you had much experience at this type of activity?” and he replies, not knowing that there’s a waterfall right behind him, that “No, I won my concession in a bid.”
We’re concerned that there is an opportunity for people to bid on this thing and take away from the stewardship-related aspects, and we have talked this through with our counsel, our counsel has talked with the state counsel, and we feel that we have been able to arrive at a conclusion that the fee bidding doesn’t have to be given a high level of criteria points that DNR is currently asking for. We’d like to see it taken out, or at least reduced significantly.
In relation to the funding, currently we’re suggesting that there be an application fee, we don’t know what that is, 150 to 300 dollars per application. And that there be a minimum concession fee of 1,000 to 2,000 dollars per concession, and DNR can figure that out but also that an individual service provider would have to pay so much money per hunter. And our numbers right now are 120 dollars for 1 to 5 clients per year, and that increases per numbers of clients per year, so if you take five to ten, ten to fifteen, your remuneration to the state goes up per hunter. And with those fees and existing land use fees which are not included in the concession program, most of us still have to maintain land use authorization from the state or BLM and we have to pay for those. You combine the average numbers of clients per year, and the land use fees, and new concession fees, you’ll find that those fees represent around 3 ½ to 4 percent of the average guide’s gross, and that’s a number that has been able to, been the accepted number within the Dept of Interior agencies, and it works for us as an industry."
Bradley/BOG: Whaddya think about the, like in Canada they have a trophy fee, so if a guy gets a sheep then he pays so much for that sheep or moose or whatever, and they seem to be pretty happy if they get an animal, if they don’t get one then they don’t pay anything. Would there be more money available for the state in that aspect, in most cases like if a guy’s coming up and it’s a once in a lifetime hunt, if he gets the animal then he’s probably not gonna be oppose to paying, you know, a trophy fee. And of course if a guy can come up every year and hunt money’s not an object to him. Would that work better or, I mean if your hunt was 10,000 for a sheep and it was 1500 dollars for, just gonna throw that out as example, for a trophy fee for a sheep then it’d be eleven-five for that hunt."
Fithian/APHA: "Through the chair, member Bradley. I can’t give you an answer to that, I haven’t studied it. In recent years, I guess for the last 8 or 9 years that I’ve been coming before this body, at least the last 7 years, we have consistently supported in front of this body and in front of the legislature and to the Department a 25% across the board increase in non-resident licensing.
And when we compare that 25% increase across the board, you know that should have started generating a couple million new dollars a year to the Department a bunch of years ago, but we’ve been fighting other bills that have asked for more monies and we haven’t got this important thing done. And of course we always ask that Alaskans start stepping up to the plate and start paying for wildlife conservation as well.
That’s the concept that we’ve looked at it from. If we build an increase in licensing fees across the board, then it gives us an idea of what the clients are gonna have to pay to come here for the full gauntlet of services. And I would use an example such as myself, where I’m doing long term five species hunts, seven if you include wolverine and wolf. And if a person has the good fortune to harvest all five, he may have a substantial amount of fees under your program that would put me at a disadvantage in encouraging him to come to Alaska. So, I just know that right now we can sustain our client base, the 25% increase in fees across the board won’t hurt us, and it’s something we should have had done a long time ago."
Barrette/BOG: "In the past there’s been testimony at this meeting that if there was any kind of motorized vehicle access into the Wood River Controlled Use Area, that it would put some guides out of business. But under the current guide use concession the way it’s set up 2/3 of the guys guiding in Unit 20A would not be in there, there would already be a reduction of guides in there if your concessions passed. Is that true?"
Fithian/APHA: "Through the chair, welcome new member. Al, I don’t have a good answer for you there. The existing guide number, this is one of the bones of contention in the whole state concession program, this particular Wood River country in this particular subunit is garnering a lot of attention from within the industry, within DNR and within the Big Game Commercial Services Board.
You heard testimonies prior to mine about people providing long term services there, primarily by horseback. You heard testimonies about how additional motorized use will disaffect existing hunting opportunities. I think the Board is gonna have to find those balances themselves, and listen to the testimony of the affected parties and make your best decisions.
We’re gonna always try to fight for quality-of-experience factors, but we also understand that in any areas where we operate near a road system, we see the network of spiderwebbed trails getting bigger and bigger and bigger it never seems to stop as long as mechanized use becomes more effective. The three-wheelers put the lines in the tundra so far out of the villages, the four-wheelers put ‘em further, and Argos and putting ‘em further. So we’re gonna continue to have that impact, and I think this Board has some ability in working with DNR to deal with that impact, that’s your situation. But we will always be fighting for quality-of-experience factors."
End of Testimony
Comments: First off, I contacted Clark Cox recently, who is heading up the Guide Concession Program (GCP) for DNR, and he couldn't confirm yet whether the $120,000 allocated to DNR for the GCP would survive the governor's red pen as he goes through the new budget the legislature submitted.
However, he did allude that if that 120grand is allocated, it won't provide any new staff to continue to work on the GCP. Currently, DNR is going over the 250 public comments that were sent in, and will likely revise the draft proposal and selection criteria etc based on all those comments, no inclination how long that will take, but after that is done DNR will post a new or revised plan that the public can comment on again, before any final version is decided upon. Still no clue either if this GCP will even survive the hurdles it needs to overcome as far as funding it through DNR, adding more staff now and in future to run it.
Which brings me to one point I'd like to make. In the thread I did on resident sheep hunting preference, I posted Fithian's testimony just before this, in which he went on a lengthy rant against state and federal government employment and funding levels in Alaska, concluding that "Alaskans have developed an entitlement mentality and if we’re not very careful with our future we’re gonna have to face some serious accountability concerns which will probably result in high taxes for all of us."
I found that interesting in light of the fact that ten minutes later when giving the GCP update he spoke about the 250grand of state monies the guide industry is wanting to fund this program, plus more state staff and even more additional monies down the line. I guess it's okay to ask for entitlements and more state govt. employees if it's for your own cause <grin>.
But the one thing I couldn't believe in Bobby's testimony was this: "So the numbers you’re hearing about putting all these people [guides] out of business, we just can’t find the validity to that. "
Note how that jibes with this written comment from APHA to the BOG in spring 2009, a year earlier: "APHA has been at the forefront of professional guide industry advocacy working to reduce negative social and wildlife/wildland conservation impacts generated by the guiding industry. During the past four years we have achieved substantial goals to this effect with the establishment (Dec. 2005) of the Big Game Commercial Services Board (BGCSB) and Development of the proposed Department of Natural Resources/ADF&G/BGCSB Guide Concession Program. This program scheduled to be implemented during January of 2011 will substantially reduce the number of guides operating on state lands. Tremendous work by numerous State agencies including the Board of Game has been put into development of this program which is designed to restrict guided hunting activity on State lands." [my emphasis]
I guess now, APHA is alluding that the GCP won't put any of the registered contracting and booking guides out of business. Not sure about the assistants and other registered guides who contract out with concession winners. I have to wonder now, with all due respect to Bobby and APHA, just what the real truth is with this GCP and what it will really do. I'm continually hearing two very differing versions depending on the moment in time and the audience being addressed.