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SOLDOTNA - While national power brokers partied and trolled for king salmon in the annual fundraising and educational Kenai River Classic on Friday, local anglers complained they've lost the river to outsiders.
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A new organization, the Kenai Area Fisherman's Coalition, ran a half-page attack ad in the Peninsula Clarion labeling the fishing event co-hosted by Sen. Ted Stevens divisive and ultimately bad for the river. Members, including former state biologists who managed the river, said paid access to policymakers helps corporations and commercial guides, not fish or local fishermen.
"There are a number of us who have been involved with state or federal agencies that feel there's undue influence peddling," said Dave Athons, a retired assistant area sportfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The local fisherman has very little say."
More and more locals keep away from the river during salmon season because of the swarm of about 400 commercial guides, he said. They believe the crush of anglers outweighs habitat improvements supported by the fundraiser.
Among the developments that riled him and other members of the new fishing advocacy group was the state's approval of 50 horsepower motors on the Kenai River starting next year, despite pollution concerns. That move was backed by the classic's sponsor, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, and river guides.
But on the river this weekend, senators, businessmen, volunteers and anglers among the classic's 200 participants say they're rallying for a good cause unique in its ability to raise awareness for fish habitat.
Among its accomplishments in 14 years is the classic's funding of boardwalks that protect streamside salmon-rearing habitat from trampling.
"It raises a hell of a lot of money for habitat protection and gives the Kenai River a national profile," said Anchorage Economic Development Corp. president Bill Popp, a former adviser to the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor. "Even though I moved out of town, I'm not going to give up my involvement."
Popp acted as chief "fish wrangler" on Friday, overseeing a crew of Alaska Military Youth Academy volunteers who help weigh in the fish. He dismissed the local group's criticism, saying, "There's always going to be those that take on an event from the negative. (The classic) is all about protecting the river and the fish runs."
Former Kenai River guide Pat Carter manned the hospitality "fun boat" on Friday, motoring up and down the river to make sure participants out in 54 boats had enough clothing, sandwiches, vodka, Irish cream and cigars.
He said the classic is crucial for local habitat conservation, and he pointed out grassy coves along the waterway. "There's no current back in there. That's where those little fish live," he said.
The event's critics say it's what happens on the boats and at private dinners that worries them. People with the money or clout to participate have traditionally had access to decision-makers, including members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
"It's pretty well understood by long-term observers that when 'Uncle Ted' says let's go fishing on the Kenai River, that's where deals are done," said Frank Mullen, a Homer-based commercial fisherman. Commercial fishermen lack that access, he said.
"We don't feel like we're heard at all," he said.