Mike Dingman: Court's refusal to hear Katie John case does more harm than good

Mike Dingman

It's a blow to the larger issue -- Alaska's self-determination.

On Monday the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear what has become known as the Katie John Case.

Katie John, who died last year, was a subsistence rights advocate and an Athabascan elder. She was born in 1915 and lived in Mentasta Lake. In 1984 the state forbade Katie John to put up a fish wheel at her family's Copper River fish camp. She challenged that subsistence fishing closure in court.

This started nearly three decades of litigation.

Federal courts ruled in a series of judgments known as "the Katie John case" that the state was wrong in its application of the law under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

While ANILCA stated that there should be a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing, the state had operated under a system that treated rural and urban Alaskans equally.

In 2001 Gov. Tony Knowles met with Katie John at her fish camp and informed her that he would not be appealing the federal courts ruling. This decision, by Knowles, effectively left the federal government in charge of subsistence hunting and fishing in navigable waters within federal land and also adjacent to it.

Alaska has seen the effects of federal overreach in Alaska over the years. It has become so common that too many Alaskans have seemingly become numb to the beating that the feds put on us.

In December -- two days before Christmas -- Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that she wouldn't allow the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay to build a life-saving one-lane gravel emergency road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. This road would connect King Cove to the airstrip in Cold Bay where planes could land in inclement weather in cases where a medevac is needed.

Regardless of how you feel about the proposed Pebble mine and the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) actions in regards to deposit, it can be nothing but an insult to Alaskans when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy commented to the Wall Street Journal on the gift of moose meat that a little girl gave her -- "It could gag a maggot." When questioned about gifts she received in Alaska, she said of a North Pole pin, "I threw the (expletive) thing away."

Her words are further evidence of how the federal government really views Alaska -- more like a colony than a state.

Katie John is right, and as damaging to Alaska as I feel ANILCA is, it is right on the issue of subsistence. The people in the rural areas of the state should have preference when it comes to subsistence hunting and fishing. Nobody in the urban areas in the state can make an argument that they deserve that privilege as much as those in rural areas do without passing the red face test.

However, that argument should be had in the state, amongst the state's leadership -- not by an overreaching federal government continuing to exert its will on the state.

No other state in the union would allow the federal government to treat them the way Alaska is treated. Nobody else would allow decisions that only affect lands and people within their state to be decided by federal bureaucrats that know little to nothing about the state.

The moose meat comment by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wasn't only a public relations faux pas; it also is an indication of how little understanding she has of Alaska, our traditions and our people. It is an individual demonstration of the larger lack of competence to make decisions for Alaskans.

Just because a ruling has an outcome that is desirable does not make it right. The Katie John decision is correct on the specific issue of subsistence. However, it has a negative impact on the overriding larger issue.

Alaska needs to climb out from the grasp of the overreaching federal government. We need to control our own destiny and be the deciders of our own fate.

By celebrating the defeat of Alaska's self-determination we are doing more harm than the good that comes from Katie John.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

Mike Dingman