Alcohol May Be Banned On Illinois River

Sunday, July 9th 2006, 7:11 pm
By: News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) _ For tens of thousands of people, the clear, cold and fast-flowing waters of the 100-mile long Illinois River are the summer destination for swimming and floating in canoes, rafts and kayaks.

But sprinkled among the families and church groups are floaters who flock to the northeastern Oklahoma waterway with ice chests full of beer for the journey of three hours or more, a tradition that has prompted state officials to consider prohibiting alcohol at the river.

An alcohol ban could be in place as early as May 2007 if the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission approves a plan that was first proposed in June. The OSRC created a subcommittee to further look into the issue.

OSRC Administrator Ed Fite said funding is the main reason the commission has proposed the ban.

``In 2002 we took a 35 percent cut of our appropriated funds,'' Fite said Friday. ``We're down $17,000 from last year and that's to fund salaries.''

Fite said the state budget reduction also cuts into how many park rangers are employed. He said with only 10 rangers to patrol 100 miles of river, the OSRC was going to have to take action.

``During Memorial Day weekend, folks complained about disturbances on the river and the lack of rangers,'' Fite said. ``But they (the rangers) became a full-time taxi service for public drunks. And we get no revenue from the citations issued.''

The ban has drawn opposition from float companies, but others support the proposal.

Besides 48 alcohol-related arrests over the Memorial Day weekend, one man died in a car accident near the river and another man lost his eye after another man hit him in the face with a rock, records show. The latter incidents also were alcohol-related.

Some float operators said the OSRC and park rangers could better enforce the laws currently in place.

L.D. Stephens, co-owner of War Eagle Resort, said an alcohol ban has been discussed in the past but this is the first time that it has actually been formally proposed.

``(The ban) will stop 75 percent of our customers,'' Stephens said. ``We may have more church groups and families if the ban does pass, but business will still decrease.''

Fite said the float operators' concerns are being considered, and the commission will hold public hearings not only in the river area but in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

``I've received between 50 and 60 e-mails from people about the proposal,'' Fite said. ``It's evenly split right now. But we want to let folks know that if they come to the river and consume too much alcohol and are causing problems, we'll identify them and take appropriate action.''

Some floaters are siding with the float operators.

Rick Grubbs, a frequent floater from Broken Arrow, was kayaking down the river Thursday with his grandson. He said he doesn't mind people drinking, as long as they clean up after themselves and are responsible.

``I've been here on busy weekends and it's not out of control,'' Grubbs said. ``There are dangers in the river that happen naturally. I'd be against (the ban.) People can travel the river responsibly, and there are more important issues than beer, like the chicken waste.''

Ryan Snodgrass, an employee of War Eagle Resort, said that business has been slow, but it's not because the river is low because of the drought.

``We could lose a lot of business,'' Snodgrass said. ``It's a bad idea.''

Archie Peyton, owner of Peyton's Place, said he's received hundreds of calls from customers, but instead of asking about pricing, they are asking if they can still drink beer on the river.

``I have a lot of families that come down _ they come here for family time. Several of them that talked to me aren't even drinkers and they don't agree with (the ban.) Why punish everyone for the misbehavior of a few?'' Peyton said, referring to the incidents of Memorial Day weekend.

So as not to have a repeat of Memorial Day, Fite said the OSRC enlisted the assistance of 12 additional park rangers, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Cherokee County Sheriffs and Cherokee Nation Marshals for the weekend leading up to the Independence Day holiday.

``We had about 50 officers cycling in and out, and about 100 citations were issued, mainly for underage drinking,'' Fite said. ``There were less incidents because we had a better presence.''

Stephens said the rangers and law enforcement have been cracking down on the floaters who drink too much and cause trouble, and that could be a solution instead of a ban.

``If they keep cracking down like that, it'll take away the problems,'' Stephens said. ``Memorial Day weekend was the hardest weekend _ it's traditionally the hardest weekend. But they're judging the whole season on one weekend.''

Stephens said problems on the river go down by 50 percent when compared to the holiday weekend.

The subcommittee's work is under way, and a public hearing could take place as early as August, Fite said. The committee submitted an opinion request to the state attorney general's office last week, and it could take up to 60 days for the commission to receive a response.

Fite said the opinion request contained three specific questions regarding alcohol on the river. The request questioned whether the commission had the statute to enforce the ban, whether the commission has the authority to ban alcohol on specific areas of the river and whether the OSRC is able to set a limit on the amount of beverages that are brought onto the river.

Fite said a decision could be made in the fall if the subcommittee finds that that OSRC does have the authority to enforce the ban. He said the OSRC could have a response by Aug. 15.