The Obama administration is launching a rapid, sweeping review of the way the federal government manages subsistence hunting and fishing in Alaska, Interior Department officials said Friday.
"The system, frankly, today is broken," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in a video shown at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention in downtown Anchorage.
Subsistence rights -- the battle over who gets the first opportunity to hunt and fish on state or federal land -- is a headline issue at this year's convention. For decades, the debate has pitted rural Alaskans and Alaska Natives, who say they hunt and fish to survive, against sports groups and urban hunters and fishermen, who argue everyone should have equal access to fish and game.
The state makes hunting and fishing rules across Alaska. But the feds regulate subsistence on federal lands, creating a confounding, overlapping system.
In contrast to the state Constitution, a 1980 federal law guarantees rural Alaskans priority when it comes to subsistence. Some Alaska Native leaders say the feds haven't done enough to protect that right, and are proposing a resolution at the convention today that calls for broad changes to subsistence management.
AFN leaders met with Interior officials at least twice in the past four months, outlining some of those requests, said state Sen. Albert Kookesh, an AFN co-chairman who praised Friday's announcement.
"We couldn't have asked for more," he said.
Gov. Sean Parnell couldn't be reached for comment Friday afternoon. Parnell served as lieutenant governor to Sarah Palin before inheriting the job in July. Palin opposed a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing. Parnell's rural affairs adviser, John Moller, answered an interview request with an e-mail:
"The administration is interested in hearing more about the suggested federal review," he wrote. "We plan to take an active role in the review and look forward to hearing details on what changes the federal government believes would make the existing dual-management system more workable."
In a statement explaining Friday's announcement, the Interior Department said subsistence is vital to the physical and spiritual culture of Alaska Natives, and federal oversight needs to be retooled to better meet the needs of Native communities.
Kim Elton, Salazar's top aide for Alaska, told the AFN convention crowd that the feds would be asking for their help crafting the new subsistence plan over the next three months. That means meeting in Alaska with unspecified subsistence "stakeholders" in hopes of implementing changes before the federal subsistence board's next meeting in January. That board sets subsistence regulations for federal land, which encompasses more than 60 percent of Alaska.
"We want you all to feel comfortable that you've had a hand in shaping the policies that you're going to have to live with," Elton told delegates from villages and cities across the state. The AFN convention is the largest gathering of Alaska Natives in the state.
The process will be a fast one and likely won't include any single town hall meeting or summit, he told reporters later.
"It's going to be very aggressive. It's going to be very difficult," he said.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, spoke at the convention, too, welcoming the review.
"Right now we've got a lot of complaints. We've got a lot of 'it's not working,'" she later told reporters. "But let's really take the opportunity to do a fair assessment."
Still, Murkowski said she's surprised at how quickly the Interior Department is trying to finish the review.
"Say they do a quick-and-dirty assessment in a couple months, come out with their recommendations, but then the people who don't like it say, 'Well it's because you didn't take enough time.'"
In the meantime, Elton asked the crowd for recommendations on who should chair the subsistence board. The current chairman is Michael Fleagle, a Native and former state Game Board chairman who was appointed to the board in 2006 by the former Bush administration.
FEDS IN FOR LONG TERM
The Interior Department review will consider whether subsistence regulators need more money to do their job, including collecting data on Alaska fish and wildlife. Elton said the new plan will be based on science as well as traditional knowledge, and it will keep the federal promise to give a rural residents priority on federal land.
The Alaska Outdoor Council, a sportsmen's group, has long opposed a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing, but executive director Rod Arno said any move to review the way the feds manage subsistence is good.
That's because some of the changes to management that AFN leaders have been calling for go beyond the rural priority guaranteed under federal law, he said.
"They made it pretty damn clear in the lands claim act about extinguishing -- in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act -- extinguishing aboriginal hunting and fishing rights in exchange for land and money," Arno said.
Elton told the AFN crowd that as the feds assumed subsistence authority on federal land in the 1990s they thought it would be temporary.
"A fundamental premise of this review is going to be that we can no longer expect the state to regain subsistence management on federal lands. Can't do it," Elton said, drawing scattered applause.
Delegates from Western Alaska, the site of a subsistence fishing protest this summer, listened to the speech through headphones, translated into Yup'ik.
"The Department of Interior is here to stay, so we have the obligation to provide the best management system that we possibly can," Elton said.
WHAT AFN WANTS
In Alaska, where hunting and fishing for food is still a common-sense alternative to grocery stores in many villages, managing fish and game is a tricky balancing act for public officials.
Kookesh, the AFN co-chair, is facing a subsistence fishing ticket and has used the case as a platform to reignite the subsistence debate.
The AFN board is proposing a resolution today that calls for a 14-step shake-up of subsistence management. For example, the proposal calls for an overhaul of the federal subsistence board, which Kookesh says is now mostly made up of federal agency heads rather than subsistence hunters and fishermen.
"The closest they get to subsistence is buying fish in Safeway," Kookesh said Friday.
The Interior secretary can indeed change the makeup of the subsistence board by proposing regulations, said Pat Pourchot, Salazar's special assistant for Alaska.
But other changes proposed at this year's convention would take congressional action. They include a call for the federal government, rather than the state, to manage subsistence on 45.5 million acres of Native-owned land, and a push for Alaska Natives who move to cities to retain a subsistence priority.
The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that it's against the state Constitution to favor Alaska hunters and fishermen based on where they live, which is why the state doesn't give rural residents preference on state land.
But under a 1980 federal law, rural residents must have subsistence hunting and fishing priority on federal land. Elton told the crowd that the subsistence management plan the department implements within the next few months will uphold that preference.
Interior Department officials said they didn't want to speculate on what might change as a result of the review. But getting rid of one of Alaskans' major complaints about subsistence management, the overlapping state and federal rules, won't change without an amendment to the state Constitution.
That could put all subsistence management back in the state's hands.
But efforts to give rural hunters priority have proved divisive. Attempts to put an amendment before voters have failed in the state Legislature.
"I don't see that happening," said Pourchot, a former state senator. "Nobody I've talked to in years sees that happening."
The state's largest gathering of Alaska Natives began Thursday at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. The convention ends today. Sessions are open to the public, although seating is sometimes limited. Here's how to follow the action if you can't make it to the convention center:
TV: Watch the convention live on GCI Channel 1 today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to GCI.
RADIO: Listen to the convention live on KNBA 90.3 FM.
ONLINE: Watch the convention streaming online, and find the daily agendas, at the Alaska Federation of Natives site, NativeFederation.org. KNBA also plans to stream its radio broadcast at KNBA.org.
By KYLE HOPKINS