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Guides hope to raise the bar

Get yourself a first-aid certification card, a little liability insurance and pay a $50 registration fee, and you, too, could work legally as a licensed fishing guide on the upper Rogue River — even if you can't row a boat and never caught a spring chinook salmon in your lifetime.

If those restrictions sound too stiff, then sign on as an employee of another licensed guide.

It doesn't even matter if you've had your fishing license revoked for life in Oregon and most western states: You can take $200 or so a day from vacationing tourists who would be much better served by climbing into the boat of a legit guide who's spent a lifetime honing his or her craft.

If there are standards for guides in Oregon, then the bar is not just set low. It's buried so no one might accidentally trip over it.

"The standards were — are — pretty loose," admits Randy Henry, a policy analyst for the Oregon State Marine Board, which manages licensed guides.

But that's about to change.

Oregon's roughly 1,150 licensed fishing, hunting and adventure guides are poised to accept some self-imposed professional and ethical standards on themselves in order to weed out rogue guides. The Marine Board is about to float a series of concepts in the court of public opinion for its first major expansion of the guide program since it was created in 1984.

The proposed changes include possible one-time proficiency tests for guides running powerboats and would require that all guides register under the program.

The package includes a proposal to triple the annual license fee, with the increase going into program management and more law-enforcement — especially to weed out illegal guides. The proposals also include raising the insurance minimum from $300,000 to $500,000, which would cost the average driftboat guide about $30 more per year, according to the Marine Board.

"Our goal is to raise the bar, set a standard," says Henry, who helped craft the proposed changes along with several guides, biologists and fish and wildlife police.

"Guiding is a legitimate profession, and it should be held to a high standard," says Henry. "This is a collection of ideas that will help define guiding and the ethics involved with it."

The Marine Board last week agreed to these "concepts" for public review, which will include yet-to-be-scheduled public meetings and written comments that will be taken beginning Aug. 1.

The Marine Board will adopt some revisions in October. Other changes, such as a fee increase and revocation powers, would have to go before the Oregon Legislature in 2013.

It's not like the guiding industry is completely without constraints.

Guides working on inland navigable waterways must get a Coast Guard license that includes fitness and drug tests. Guides working on stretches of rivers managed by the Forest Service or the federal Bureau of Land Management have registration requirements and occasionally very tough-to-get permits for places like the Lower Rogue Canyon.

But chunks of Oregon waterways are like the upper Rogue — popular, easy to reach and unencumbered by federal management, so any changes would hit home the hardest in places like this.

The concepts come after heavy input from licensed guides through a survey, regular public meetings and a Guides Advisory Committee. The changes have been generally supported so far.

Veteran Trail guide Vernon Grieve, who served on the advisory committee, says most of the concepts are good and in line with the times.

"Some of this stuff seems like a no-brainer to me," Grieve says. "Nobody even knows how many guides really are out there."

But support for some proposed changes, such as proficiency requirements, will depend upon the final wording about requirements and which agency would handle it.

One proposal calls for all fishing guides to qualify for the so-called Coast Guard "six pack" license, while another would create a testing program run by the Marine Board.

Grieve says the Coast Guard program is rife with red tape and delays, while some potential guides struggle with fitness requirements.

"Obviously, I'd like to see everybody meet a standard, but it would be better to keep it at the state level," Grieve says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.