The National Park Service (NPS) recently finalized a regulatory package that pre-empts state hunting regulations on national preserves in Alaska. A similar set of regulations is being proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for refuge lands. These actions represent a serious abrogation of public trust doctrine and the tradition of having states manage fish and wildlife resources. They also break promises and commitments made to Alaska under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and other federal laws. They are simply an unjustified overreach that unnecessarily affects Alaska hunters, many of whom rely on the pre-empted state hunting regulations for subsistence. It is also important to understand that none of the pre-empted regulations were necessary to ensure for conservation, but rather were based on the personal ideologies of NPS and USFWS staff.
While many may think it is within the rights of a federal land management agency to make rules governing hunting on federal lands, it is not that simple. Governance of hunting on federal lands in Alaska was a significant issue when these lands were established as national preserves in 1980. In a significant and hard-fought compromise, language was included in ANILCA that stipulated that hunting would continue and that the state would continue to be the primary manager of hunting and fishing. The legislative history to ANILCA clarifies that the committee working on the bill, and Sen. Ted Stevens in particular, did not want to upset the traditional state authority to manage fish and wildlife, and only granted harvest regulation authority to federal agencies to assure the priority opportunity for subsistence by rural residents on federal lands. It did not intend for federal agencies to assume general management authority. Similar provisions are included in other federal laws governing how federal lands are managed in Alaska.
As justification for their action, the federal agencies claims that their pre-emptions are necessary to ensure compliance with their founding legislation, the NPS Organic Act or Refuge Improvement Act that was established prior to ANICLA. However, the last word of Congress is the guidance legislation, not the prior legislation. Here, both federal agencies are seeking to ignore the direction of ANILCA that amended the founding legislation. This is akin to stating that women cannot vote because the original Constitution did not include such a provision. Such reasoning is not logical. It is the last action of Congress that counts.
The rules the federal agencies are pre-empting affect hunting opportunity approved by the Alaska Board of Game in an open regulatory process. Many, if not all, are rules that subsistence hunters requested to provide food security or for passing on their traditional practices. They were pre-empted based on undefined value assessments of NPS or USFWS employees. While this sounds reasonable, hunting value standards have never been the sole criteria for obtaining food for subsistence purposes. Nor should they be.
Even more troubling, the new regulations make it easier for both agencies to unilaterally pre-empt other state hunting rules. This opens the door for many more changes in the future, many of which will be subjective based on similarly undefined value assessments conducted by NPS or USFWS employees. Many of these employees will be new to Alaska and will have little to no experience in traditional Alaska hunting practices.
It was heartening to hear that the ADF&G director of wildlife conservation voiced concern with the adopted regulations. While such statements are to be applauded, we need to do more to protect the state's right to manage. A more comprehensive strategy is needed. I urge Gov. Walker to work with affected users to design and implement a strategy to repeal these regulations and protect the state's right to manage earned through previous compromises. In addition, I urge our congressional delegation to use whatever authority is at their disposal to force the NPS and USFWS to begin working with the state in a cooperative fashion, as ANILCA intended. In the words of Gov. Walker's campaign, let's put "Alaska first." Failure will result in less local involvement in the control of our resources.
Doug Vincent-Lang is a former director of wildlife conservation within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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