Legislators offer hope for subsistence bill

Senators say governor's approach is a good start

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Key senators offered some hope this morning for a resolution to the long-standing subsistence controversy, although they said the final form of any constitutional amendment probably will differ from the proposal by Gov. Tony Knowles.

Senate President Rick Halford of Chugiak and fellow Republican Jerry Ward of Nikiski said the amendment introduced by the Democratic governor last week is a good starting point, which is also the way it has been described by Knowles and spokesmen for the Alaska Federation of Natives and the United Fishermen of Alaska.

The moderate tone being struck by a variety of players is a change from an often bitter debate that goes back to 1989, when an Alaska Supreme Court ruling took the state out of compliance with the federal mandate for a rural subsistence priority. The result of that legal conflict is the current federal management of subsistence hunts and fisheries on federal land and navigable waters, covering about two-thirds of Alaska.

Since then, five special sessions under three governors have been convened to resolve the problem, but each time the Legislature has failed to put a constitutional amendment on the general election ballot, sometimes by just one or two votes. In the meantime, subsistence has become the centerpiece of the "rural-urban divide," the perception of a bias in the Legislature against the Bush.

Knowles, in his final year in office, has made resolving the subsistence issue one of his top priorities.

After the governor held a summit on the issue last summer, an ad hoc committee he appointed drafted a proposed amendment to enact the rural priority but also to offer lower, additional priorities to urban residents with a customary and traditional subsistence use.

"I don't think it reaches a point where it'll get a majority vote in the Senate," Halford said today. "It doesn't mean the issue is dead or that we should stop talking about it or stop looking at things."

He's working on his own bill, which he said attempts to enact the equivalent of a rural priority through other means. That amendment would permit the Legislature to enact a new law, as opposed to the mandatory language in the governor's bill, he said.

Using "proximity" to resources as the real criterion is "the seed of any potential compromise that might be there," Halford said. "If there's no motion, if there's no potential to do something, then I think it's particularly unfair to the rural interests that are involved to bring everybody to the table to go back through this one more time. ... I feel that the people of the real high-need areas of western Alaska are going to harvest the resources probably regardless of what we say."

Ward, an Athabascan who hasn't enjoyed subsistence protection because the Kenai Peninsula is classified as urban, said the definition of "rural" is key to breaking the logjam.

"Nobody at this table and nobody in the state of Alaska knows what rural is; therein lies ourproblem," he said. For example, Bethel has more typically urban amenities, such as bowling alleys and movie theaters, than Nikiski does, yet is considered rural, he said.

"Eventually, we're going to have to get subsistence resolved," Ward said. "I don't think either position (for or against a rural priority) is wrong. ... Both of them want to have the right to have subsistence as the highest priority."

In other remarks during the weekly press briefing, Halford said a large advertisement in the Juneau Empire by the Alaska Travel Industry Association probably wouldn't be effective in changing votes on proposed emergency tourism marketing. The Senate Finance Committee tonight is scheduled to consider a bill passed by the House appropriating $6 million for the industry, which has seen depressed bookings post-Sept. 11.

The ad calls on the Senate not to "give in to the terrorists." Pointing to the line that said ATIA paid for the ad, Halford joked, "Which terrorists?"

"I don't think those kinds of ads sway the Legislature, nor should they," he said. "I don't think that's the way to convince people."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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