Subsistence rights expected to headline AFN convention

Kyle Hopkins,Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Alaska Native leaders expect the push for rural subsistence hunting and fishing rights to resurface this week as a major theme at the state's largest gathering of the state's indigenous people.

Consider the signs:

In Juneau, the regional Native corporation is calling for an overhaul of the federal subsistence board. Too many bureaucrats and not enough people who hunt and fish for their food, Sealaska Corp. argues.

In Bethel, the head of a non-profit representing 56 Yukon-Kuskokwim villages says the communities won't honor government fish and game management plans unless local tribes play a larger role in setting the rules. This after a village police officer was cited by federal officials for taking part in an illegal subsistence-fishing trip to protest restrictions this summer on the Yukon River.

And then there's state Sen. Albert Kookesh, also the co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, who is fighting a $500 subsistence fishing ticket of his own and demanding major changes to the way hunting and fishing is regulated in Alaska.

The annual three-day AFN meeting draws thousands of people from across the state and begins Thursday in Anchorage. An annual elders and youth gathering begins today. As in 2006, subsistence rights are expected to be a centerpiece issue of the main convention.

"The way things have been happening here recently -- between the hearing in Bethel and Sen. Kookesh's, the fine that he (might have) to pay for over-fishing subsistence in Angoon, it seems to be coming up more and more," said Tim Towarak, AFN's other co-chairman and chief executive for the Bering Straits Native Corporation.

The details are complex but the central question is straightforward: Should rural Alaskans taking fish or wildlife for their subsistence use get first dibs over other Alaskans, as promised under a 1980 federal law? In 1989, the Alaska Supreme Court said no, ruling that it's unconstitutional to favor one group of hunters or fishermen over another based on where they live.

The federal government waded into regulation of subsistence hunting and fishing on the federal lands as a result, leaving Alaska with an unusual, overlapping tangle of state and federal subsistence rules.

AFN leaders say that system is broken.

"People are just tired of the dual management. They're tired of a system that's not working. And tired of people getting citations and people having closures and people not having enough fish," said AFN President Julie Kitka.

Rod Arno is executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, a statewide organization of sport hunters and fishermen that has long opposed a rural priority. "Fish, waters, wildlife are all owned by the state as a public resource for common use," he said.

As for enforcement, even subsistence fishermen need limits on their catch to ensure enough fish return year after year or they can decimate a run, he said. "When you get modern enough that you can really negatively affect the harvest ... you got to have management," he said.

Kookesh, while conceding the need for some subsistence limits based on science, said the state is overreaching its authority and is unnecessarily harsh to subsistence hunters and fishermen. Along with a shake-up of the federal subsistence board, he's calling for the federal government, rather than the state, to oversee subsistence hunting and fishing rules on 45.5 million acres of Native-owned lands. That would mean a rural preference on the private land owned by regional and village Native corporations.

Gov. Sean Parnell couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

"It's doubtful anyone will comment on a proposal the administration hasn't reviewed," Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, wrote in an e-mail.


The state cited Kookesh and three others on Admiralty Island in September, saying the fishermen took a total of 148 sockeye salmon when their permits only allowed 15 each, or a total of 60. Kookesh has a different version of events, saying the officer failed to take into account others at the site whose permits collectively allowed the group to take many more fish. The harvest was to be shared with widows, the elderly and others in Angoon, he said.

But Kookesh's broader argument is that the state wildlife trooper had no right to mess with a subsistence harvest on Admiralty Island, which is a national monument under federal jurisdiction. The state argues jurisdiction because they were beach seine fishing in the saltwater of the bay, while Kookesh said all but one of the men were physically located on federal land.

The Native American Rights Fund is giving advice to Kookesh's lawyer, said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the organization in Anchorage.

AFN hasn't gotten involved but will likely discuss the case at a board meeting Tuesday, Towarak said.

Kookesh is hoping to get his case moved into federal court. But he conceded that's tough to do and has little expectation a state judge will go along with his jurisdictional challenge.

"I expect I'm going to have to pay my $500 dollar fine eventually," he said in an interview Friday. "But I figured while I was doing that I would get the Native community and the rural folks in Alaska to start thinking about subsistence again because we've let it go. We've not thought about it, we've not worked on it, we've not worked hard enough to keep it as a top priority for our people."


Here's how subsistence is regulated today:

The state boards of fish and game set rules for subsistence hunting -- When can you fish? How many moose can you bag? -- across Alaska. Wildlife troopers enforce the regulations.

But on federal land, which accounts for more than 60 percent of Alaska, the federal subsistence board makes the rules. It can supersede the state -- allowing rural hunters to begin earlier in the season, for example.

Kookesh and other Native leaders once pushed for the state to change its constitution to provide a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing everywhere in Alaska, a move that would unify the rules and allow the state to manage harvests without federal interference.

But that effort failed in the face of opposition from legislators who say that access to fish and game should not be based on where Alaskans live.

Kookesh, a Democratic state senator from Angoon, said he's no longer trying to change the state law.

"After being turned down so many years by the state we just figured, OK, we're wasting our time here, we'll just spend our money to protect our federal rights," Kookesh said. "We decided ... we're probably better having the federal government manage for subsistence. But at the same time they've let us down too."

Kookesh said he and other AFN board members told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar they want a change in the federal board that sets the rules. He said it's currently made up of agency heads rather than subsistence users. Kookesh also wants the state advisory member kicked off.

The Sealaska Corp., Southeast's regional Native corporation, has drafted an AFN resolution calling for those changes and others.

Meanwhile, the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents dozens of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages, earlier this month passed a resolution of its own calling for tribal consultation on all land and marine resource management, said president Myron Naneng. A version of the measure may be considered by the AFN as well.

Naneng said he's told state and federal officials that "our villages on the Lower Yukon and the rest of the villages in the region will not honor any resource management plans unless it has gone through tribal consultation." His organization represents villages in the Lower Yukon River, where regulators placed steep reductions on subsistence king salmon fishing because of weak runs and where fishermen from Marshall held the protest fishery.

The Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, a confederation of tribal councils around the state that's separate from the AFN, plans to hold a closed-door meeting with Native corporations Wednesday in Anchorage that will likely focus on hunting and fishing rights and tribal sovereignty, said chairman Mike Williams.

"Those are unfinished business," he said.


Kendall-Miller, the Native American Rights Fund attorney in Anchorage, said the federal subsistence board's protection of Native hunting and fishing was weakened during the Bush Administration under pressure from Alaska governors.

"(People) are looking for the federal government to step back and be a vigorous defender of subsistence rights," Miller said.

With a new president in office, AFN leaders have met with the White House and the Interior Department, Kitka said. "People are very hopeful that the Obama administration is going to take some proactive steps to improve the situation, the regulatory situation here."

Kim Elton, director of Alaska Affairs for the department, didn't return a call for comment late last week.

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