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Native leaders upset by effort to overturn ruling

At issue are federal subsistence rights on navigable rivers managed by state

Posted: November 7, 2013 - 1:10am

ANCHORAGE — A decision by Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration to try to overturn a subsistence and water rights ruling is an assault on rural Alaska, according to the largest statewide Native organization in the state.

Rosita Worl, chairwoman of the Alaska Federation of Native’s subsistence committee, called the state’s actions “a reckless attempt to unravel the precedents set by the lower courts and through administrative procedures.”

“Too much time, energy and precious funding has been wasted in the state’s ongoing attacks on subsistence,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

The organization, also known as AFN, called a news conference Tuesday to voice its frustration with the state’s decision to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The state contends the appeals court improperly upheld Interior Department rules enforcing federal subsistence fishing rights on navigable rivers that otherwise would be owned and managed by the state, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

State Attorney General Michael Geraghty said Alaska got title to navigable rivers at statehood and the feds have no business managing fishery resources there.

The high court will have to decide whether to hear the case. Opposing groups, like AFN, likely will get to weigh in.

The issue has been before the courts for years and emerged from a conflict between the state Constitution and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, in which Congress declared that rural Alaskans had preference to fish and game. Fish and game were managed by the state in line with that until the Alaska Supreme Court in 1989 found that all Alaskans were equally entitled to subsistence anywhere in the state.

In the 1990s, Katie John, an Athabascan elder who had a fish camp at the Copper River, asserted she had a federal right to catch fish she needed to feed herself and others.

In 2001, after a court decision that set the stage for the current fight, then-Gov. Tony Knowles visited John and said he wouldn’t appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But after Frank Murkowski took office, his administration found another issue to sue over in 2005, leading to the ruling against the state this past July by the appeals court.

Knowles said it would be a smarter show of leadership for Parnell to try to push the Legislature to change the state Constitution to include a rural subsistence preference, something Knowles was unable to do.

He said that would return fish and game management to the state.

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