Our view: Once more, subsistence

Refusal to pass rural preference means federal role is for keeps

October 26, 2009 

Ten years ago the state Legislature was the pivotal player in determining the future of subsistence hunting and fishing management in Alaska. Now, as the Department of the Interior begins a swift, thorough review of subsistence law on Alaska's federal lands, the state can only comment and say that it looks forward participating.

The state of Alaska isn't driving anymore.

The subsistence debate was often bitter and never resolved. At its heart was the conflict between federal law in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Act, which called for a rural subsistence preference to safeguard traditional Native culture, and state law, which allows for no preference based on place of residence -- law upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court when, in 1989, it struck down as unconstitutional a 1986 rural preference law.

In the 1990s the Alaska Legislature repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed to put a constitutional amendment allowing a rural preference on the ballot. Despite majorities in favor of such a preference, lawmakers never mustered the necessary three-fourths majorities required to put a constitutional amendment to Alaska voters.

Lawmakers knew what was coming. More than once, Sen. Ted Stevens spoke to state joint sessions and warned them that the federal government would permanently take over subsistence management on federal lands in Alaska -- more than 60 percent of our total. The feds weren't eager for the job. At Stevens' behest, the Interior Department several times extended deadlines for the state to act.

It never happened. Now the feds are here for keeps.

What's billed as a sweeping change of subsistence management is due for completion in just three months.

And, if proposals by the Alaska Federation of Natives win favor in D.C., federal control could extend to even more Alaska land -- the 45 million acres owned by Native corporations.

You can draw three conclusions from history and current events on the subsistence issue.

• Alaska Natives prefer to deal with the federal government rather than the state when it comes to the broader issues of subsistence. Native leaders grew tired of roadblocks in the Legislature, tired of hearing lines like "discrimination by zip code." So they decided to deal with Uncle Sam -- and that seems to be working.

• Passage of a rural preference amendment would both have served to heal -- though not completely erase -- the urban-rural and non-Native and Native divides. Rifts remain. Subsistence hasn't been an issue before the Legislature of late, but it has remained an issue in the field. Now it's the federal government and Native leaders, with the state in a lesser role, who will try to work things out.

• It was true in 1980, 1986 and it's true today -- a rural preference is fair, and would have made a fitting amendment to the Alaska Constitution. Those with the greatest dependence on Alaska's fish and game -- most, but not all, of whom are Alaska Natives -- should have first crack at them, particularly in times of scarcity.

Lawmakers missed opportunities to lead and unite. We hope the feds do better.

BOTTOM LINE: Refusal to pass rural subsistence preference has diminished state role in management.

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