Native lawmakers, responding Wednesday to Gov. Frank Murkowski's State of the State address, emphasized that Natives must participate in decisions involving resource and infrastructure development and their effects on subsistence.
Speaking at a forum held by the Tlingit-Haida Central Council and the Alaska Native Brotherhood, Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat, said the Murkowski administration should listen to the needs of locals before building roads and consider what impacts such development will have for subsistence hunting.
Murkowski, in his address to the Legislature last Thursday, said, "As a majority of the state's resource development will take place in rural Alaska, rest assured that rural Alaska will have a seat at the table during the decision-making process."
But Lincoln said Natives need to have "a seat at the table" all the time and called on Murkowski to appoint more Alaska Natives to state boards and commissions.
She also questioned how Murkowski would pay for projects such as extending the Alaska Railroad to Fort Greely, creating a 1-million acre state forest in Southeast, and building a variety of roads throughout the state.
"Where are we going to get the money?" Lincoln asked.
She cautioned that federal money for the state could slow down as the U.S. government prepares for a possible war with Iraq.
Rep. Albert Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat, asked whether Natives even want to be at the table when discussing the issue of subsistence.
"We consider it an Alaska problem, not a Native problem," he said. "And the reason why it's not a Native problem is because we already have federal protection on subsistence as a way of life."
Kookesh said any state law attempting to address subsistence should be sent first to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to determine if it will bring the state back into compliance with the federal law mandating a rural subsistence priority.
"If it does, then we should sit down and talk about it; if not, then we're wasting our time," he said.
Kookesh was skeptical about whether subsistence would be resolved by the Murkowski administration, noting that the state has been through six special sessions, six regular sessions and three governors on the issue.
"This will be the fourth governor who has tried to resolve the subsistence question in Alaska, so it's really hard for the Native community to be hopeful about whether we're going to be able to resolve this," he said.
The Tlingit-Haida Central Council and the Alaska Native Brotherhood will continue to hold forums at ANB Hall in Juneau throughout the legislative session.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, and Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, are scheduled to speak at the Feb. 5 forum, which begins at noon.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.