Senate forum turns to US Supreme Court ruling in Katie John subsistence case

Lisa Demer

Two Republicans trying to unseat Sen. Mark Begich appeared before a large crowd of Alaska Native leaders Tuesday and after giving their stump speeches were asked a single but significant question on rural subsistence.

Neither Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell nor former natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan gave a direct answer but both said they value subsistence.

The question arose from Monday's U.S. Supreme Court handling of the Katie John case, the latest in the long-running conflict between subsistence rights and states' rights. The justices decided not to hear the state's appeal of an earlier court ruling that approved Interior Department rules enforcing federal subsistence fishing and hunting rights for rural Alaskans along state-owned rivers.

"If elected and the state of Alaska asks you to introduce legislation that would reverse the Supreme Court decision, what would you do?" moderator Sarah Lukin asked Treadwell and Sullivan. A third prominent Republican in the race, Joe Miller of Fairbanks, was invited to the forum but didn't respond, she said afterwards.

Lukin, who is originally from Port Lions on Kodiak Island and now lives in Anchorage, looked over a stack of questions from the audience at the Alaska Native Village CEO Association conference and said many were on subsistence but there was time for just that one.

Treadwell jumped up to answer, saying first that "management for abundance is our job."

"The very first thing I would do is sit down with Alaska Natives and try to find a consensus that works, because frankly we shouldn't be battling each other in Washington," Treadwell said. "What can we do so that we can manage wildlife appropriately, so that we can maintain food security, so that we can put subsistence first, as the federal law is."

He said he didn't expect the law to change.

Sullivan, who in 2010 as Alaska attorney general filed the state's appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, didn't address what he would do as senator but said "subsistence is not going to be won in the courtroom."

Decades of litigation show "just what a deeply spiritual and emotional issue subsistence is throughout the state," Sullivan said.

"I don't think that there's a solution where the federal government can mandate something or a state court or a federal court can mandate something and then you have a victory with one side and a loss with another."

Like Treadwell, Sullivan said people should work together for a real solution.

The state has lost almost every federal court ruling on subsistence, including Monday's Supreme Court decision not to weigh in on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. The case was a win for rural Alaskans who rely on fishing and hunting for basic subsistence.

The Alaska Federation of Natives praised Monday's Supreme Court decision. So did Begich, who opposed the state lawsuit "and is committed to protecting rights to subsistence hunting and fishing," according to his campaign. Byron Mallott, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he was heartened by the decision and urged the state to talk with rural and Native residents to protect subsistence. Republican state Senate leaders said they were disappointed.

The state has been battling in various courts off and on since Katie John, a revered Athabascan elder who died last year, first brought a lawsuit in the 1980s asserting her right to fish at her Copper River fish camp to feed herself and others.

The issue is rooted in a conflict between the Alaska Constitution, which says all Alaskans, urban and rural, are equally entitled to fish and game, and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which gave a preference to rural Alaskans especially when there wasn't enough for everyone.

The Alaska Native Village CEO Association conference continues Wednesday at the Dena'ina Center. Governor candidates Mallott and Bill Walker will speak at a forum set to begin around 12:15 p.m. Gov. Sean Parnell is declining all candidate debates and forums during the legislative session, his campaign said.


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