Natives rail at plan to ax funding

Cuts would eliminate state office overseeing subsistence

Posted: Friday, March 15, 2002

Alaska Natives expressed anger Thursday over a House Finance Committee plan to eliminate state funding for subsistence.

Lawmakers overseeing the state Department of Fish and Game budget proposed that the House Finance Committee cut $1.1 million from the state's Division of Subsistence, eliminating all state support for the office.

Natives testifying before the House Finance Committee on Thursday called on lawmakers to put the money back in the budget.

"We have truly become a minority within minorities in our ancestral land of Alaska," said Melina Emerson, with the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

Alaska manages subsistence practices on its own land for those residents who still depend on

hunting, fishing and gathering. The area managed by Alaska constitutes about 40 percent of the state's total land mass.

The federal government took over subsistence on its own lands and waters because Alaska does not comply with federal laws on subsistence.

Gov. Tony Knowles is proposing a constitutional amendment to comply with the federal law - an effort that has failed in past legislative sessions - and has asked Alaska Natives to support his efforts.

The Alaska Federation of Natives has given Knowles its support, but leaders have said they do so despite a general satisfaction with federal management.

"These budget cuts are coming at a time when people in the rural areas are getting more comfortable with federal management," said Rep. Reggie Joule, a Democrat from Kotzebue who chairs the legislative Bush Caucus.

The state Division of Subsistence is primarily a research arm of the department, helping the state boards of fish and game manage the resources.

Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, is chairman of the subcommittee that proposed the cuts. Bunde said the already austere Fish and Game budget could not support cuts in other areas.

"It appeared to me that subsistence was where we could do the least amount of damage," said Bunde, who added he sought to protect department programs that aided Alaska's economy, such as habitat conservation.

"Frankly, I feel we will always have federal management," Bunde said.

Bunde said other divisions in the department could take on some of the duties that the subsistence division now performs. He said the division also has $3.2 million in federal funds in next year's budget.

But Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue said the federal government is unlikely to spend the money if the state lays off researchers to do the work.

Overall, the House Finance plan cuts $2.2 million from Knowles' request for Fish and Game funding. The plan calls for the department to make another $561,000 cuts.

As a result, Fish and Game is proposing to eliminate its oversight of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery.

Rue said lawmakers have cut $18 million from the department in the past 10 years and there are few places in the agency that can absorb more cuts.

An agency analysis said the state would no longer monitor subsistence on land it controls if the cuts are preserved. However, Rue said Thursday the cuts may force him to take funds from other areas.

Subsistence is the top priority for his agency, "so that means it is going to hurt something else," Rue said.

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