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Alaska and AFN at loggerheads in a case pitting state sovereignty against subsistence

Alaska Dispatch
The case between Alaska and the Department of Interior is known commonly as the "Katie John case." John, an Ahtna elder who passed away earlier this year, sued the state in 1984 after being denied access to a fish camp in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that had been used by her people for subsistence fishing prior to the land being shut down. In 1994, John and the other plaintiffs prevailed, and the ruling opened all federal waters in Alaska to management priority for rural and Alaska Native residents for subsistence use. Fish Tuimalealiifano / Ahtna Incorporated

On Monday, the state of Alaska filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, making clear its intention to appeal a case that spans decades and disputes over who has the right to manage many of Alaska's waterways -- the state, or the federal government..

A day later, the Alaska Federation of Natives announced its intent to oppose that petition, saying the appeal would be an affront to Alaska Natives' subsistence way of life, and an "assault upon the people of Alaska who depend upon hunting, fishing and gathering to feed their families."

The case is currently known as State of Alaska v. Sally Jewell, Secretary of the United States Department of Interior et al., as the state is petitioning the Interior Secretary for response in the case. It's more recognizable, however, as the "Katie John case." John, an Ahtna elder who passed away earlier this year, sued the state in 1984 after being denied access to a fish camp in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that had been used by her people for subsistence fishing prior to the land being shut down. In 1994, John and the other plaintiffs prevailed, and the ruling opened all federal waters in Alaska to management priority for rural Alaska residents for subsistence use.

Still, the case continued to wind its way through the courts, with the state arguing that a 1999 ruling of what constituted "public lands" -- lands on which rural Alaskans were given subsistence priority under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) -- "swept too broadly," while John and the other plaintiffs argued that the definition was still too narrow. 

A Ninth-Circuit Court ruling in July affirmed the 1999 rules, giving the federal government -- and by extension under ANILCA, rural Alaskans -- the "authority to control of fishing and hunting along waterways in over half of the State," in the words of the state's petition filed Monday.

The state and Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty argue that the issue is about Alaska's ability to manage its own resources, and the sovereignty to oversee its "navigable streams." It's an issue the state has also dipped its toe into in a case debating whether or not certain watercraft are permitted in federal waterways located in Alaska.

“This decision not only threatens the principle that Alaskans should manage their own fish and game, which was the impetus for Alaska statehood, but also the ability of the State to conserve its resources for future generations,” Geraghty said in a statement Monday. The state continues to argue that the 1999 ruling that ANILCA applies to federal lands and waterways adjacent to federal lands is overly broad.

AFN, however, views the petition as an assault on subsistence -- and has vowed to defend the ruling.

"AFN is extremely disappointed in the State of Alaska, who continues unravel any protections for subsistence in any way they can," said recently-elected AFN co-chair Tara Sweeney.

"We will vigorously defend the subsistence rights of our people by intervening in this case and any others that compromise our basic rights," Dr. Rosita Worl, chair of AFN's Subsistence Committee, said in a release.