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Idaho paddlers up in arms over registration proposal

THE NATION

Powerboaters don't think it's fair to be the only ones to pay; the governor agrees. User fees cover docks and other services.

July 06, 2008|Stuart Glascock | Times Staff Writer

A noisy fight over user fees has erupted on Idaho's scenic lakes and world-famous river rapids. It pits white-water river rafters, kayakers and canoeists against powerboaters.

At issue is who pays for services such as docks, launching pads, parking lots, restrooms and search-and-rescue efforts. Motorboaters pay registration fees and gas taxes; others don't.

Powerboaters complained to state officials that others were not paying their fair share of user fees.

Rafters, kayakers, canoeists and white-water paddlers responded that they did not need docks or boat launch facilities. In most cases, they carry their watercraft to the riverbanks and lakeshores.

In a state that boasts 880 square miles of water -- 2,000-plus lakes and several large, navigable rivers, including the Snake, Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai -- watercraft fees generate heated discussion.

Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wants to require that nonmotorized boats be registered.

He has convened a task force to advise the Legislature on a fair approach to funding the state's boating program. The task force is to deliver recommendations this fall; legislation is expected after the next session begins in January.

Rob Lesser, founder of the Idaho Whitewater Assn., opposes fees for nonmotorized boats.

"Boat launch facilities are not something we need," Lesser said.

Most white-water river rafters operate on federal territory, he said.

"It's just a reach out to try to find additional funding from a soft source," Lesser said.

Fee opponents launched a protest petition.

"This is an unfair tax, impossible to administer, targeting a group of users for something they don't use and already pay for," reads the petition at KayakIdaho.com.

But proponents of registration fees say canoeists and other such boaters do use some of the same facilities that powerboaters do.

And search-and-rescue efforts involve all kinds of boaters. From 2002 through last year, 45 people died in boating accidents in Idaho -- about half of which involved nonmotorized boating, the state parks department said.

Other states have tried registering canoes and kayaks. Arizona and Alaska abandoned it because the administrative costs outweighed the revenue. Seven states currently require registration of nonmotorized boats: Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Connecticut.

After studying the issue, Democratic state Rep. George Sayler of Coeur d'Alene -- one of the three state lawmakers on the task force -- is not convinced.

"I'm more skeptical now than when we started," Sayler said.

"I'm not seeing very much of a need."

The task force, he said, is "still taking input." Its third meeting of the year is July 17.

Several questions remain unresolved, such as: Would owners of more than one nonmotorized boat have to register each one? Would the fee apply to visitors from out of state?

"It could be a burden to administer," Sayler said.

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stuart.glascock@latimes.com

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