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Compass: Subsistence is a constitutional right of all Alaskans

Erik Hill

My take on the history of Alaska's subsistence issues differs from former Gov. Knowles's recent recollections (Letters, April 7).

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 provided $963 million taxpayer dollars to extinguish Native land claims and the protections of aboriginal subsistence uses thereon. The divvying of this sum, and forty four million acres of public land among newly created Native corporations as compensation for the loss of any land use exclusivity was heralded by most as fair.

Unsustainable subsistence practices like fish nets spanning entire streams (Katie John's method), and excessive harvesting of game, prohibited after statehood, had been replaced by viable long term regulations. Subsistence priority was widely embraced because it was perceived to apply to all. The eventual state rural preference was interpreted by those I knew to mean where you were at the time you harvested, not where you resided.

Temperate state enforcement seemed to bear this out, and subsistence advocates were content.

It was only in 1980, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that the ire of many subsistence devotees was roused. It wasn't the reclassification of a hundred million acres of prime public fish and game habitat as National Parks and Wilderness Areas. It was the prohibition or restriction of access for anyone not meeting the narrowest federal definition of rural.

Federal control became absolute, enforcement draconian. Disenfranchised supporters of a subsistence priority, stung by exclusion, were outraged and alienated from the federal gendarmes and the privileged rural class they created, many of whom had been compensated handsomely for a share of the harvest, yet were allowed to reap it exclusively nonetheless.

My own piece of the Alaskan dream lay close by Katie John's fish camp at Batzulnetas. I loved and respected that land, and it provided invaluable sustenance for my family until it was declared off limits. My history of hunting and gathering there, well established by the time of the federal takeover, meant nothing to the autocrats. I had no deep pocketed help with my desperate appeals as did Katy John from the Native American Rights Fund. And because of my zip code, my access to that cherished country was barred.

That kind of hurt goes deep.

When state enforcement of the blatantly discriminatory rural preference began to mirror the federal tack, equal rights crusader Sam McDowell had had enough. He reasoned the only way to get a fair shake was to invoke the "common use" clause of Alaska's constitution, prohibiting discrimination, before our Supreme Court. The 1998, 5-1 ruling in McDowell's favor outlawed rural preference on state lands, and touched off a full court press by advocates toamend the constitution to reinstitute the rural bias.

Legislators vilified by Knowles as obstructionists for stymieing the effort were in fact the only ones fulfilling their oaths to defend constitutional equality.

To assert that Alaskans overwhelmingly support subsistence is disingenuous. Residentsdenied access to the land may still favor it, while bitterly resenting the loss of subsistenceopportunity. The politics surrounding the issue are ones of exclusion, a fact little appreciated by unaffected voters. To those committed to equality of opportunity, risking constitutional safeguards of common use by subjecting them to the tyranny of a manipulated majority at the ballot box is madness.

The unconscionable imposition of a divisive rural / urban class system on federal lands is the purest form of federal "overreach." It is sophistry to paint opponents of expanding the flawed system to state lands as selfish or heartless. The only self-determination possible for the bulk of Alaska's people, in this arena, is to hold tightly to management of their lands under the constitution as is.

Cultural, spiritual, and physical dependence on the bounty of the land is not unique to rural people. To enhance access for one group at the expense of another is morally wrong. Whether or not that was the intent of Congress when they passed ANILCA, they got it wrong.

It is not Alaska's constitution that needs to be amended, it is ANILCA.

Tim Shine has attempted to feed his family from the land for the past 40 years. He lives just outside Wasilla, and has always considered himself a rural resident.