More towns want 'rural' status

Kenai Subsistence decision triggers questions in less populated communities

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Now that the Kenai Peninsula is considered ``rural'' under federal subsistence rules, other Alaska communities are asking why they can't also be made eligible for a rural hunting and fishing priority.

Tribal groups in Douglas; Eklutna, the Athabaskan village within the municipal limits of Anchorage; and Adak, the nearly abandoned Navy base in the Aleutians have asked, either formally or informally, that their nonrural status be reconsidered.

They may have a stronger case since the Federal Subsistence Board declared the entire Kenai Peninsula -- with its 50,000 residents, shopping centers and

highways to Anchorage -- rural on May 4.

With that decision, the board expanded the subsistence definition of what is presumed rural. The board stretched the population limits defining rural in federal regulations. It also gave deference to Native traditions, even when Natives live in communities many people would consider urban.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, ANILCA, specifies a rural, not a Native, priority for subsistence fishing and hunting. It does, however, allow the Federal Subsistence Board to consider Native cultural traditions, just as it allows the board to weigh social issues of non-Natives.

Adak could have the easiest argument for reconsideration. Since the naval air station on the remote Aleutian Island closed, Adak's population has dropped from 4,633 in 1990 to 106 in 1999, according to state figures. Vince Tutiakoff, president and chairman of the Aleut Corp., said a rural designation would allow Adak residents, including some Aleuts, to practice a subsistence lifestyle.

The Douglas Indian Association, whose members live within Juneau's city boundaries, could be next. Tribal members testified at the May board meeting that Douglas should be classified rural so its members can practice subsistence hunting and fishing.

Lee Stephan, chief of the Native Village of Eklutna, said he also wants his community to be considered rural. Though he hasn't filed a formal petition, Stephan said, he's watching what happens on the Kenai.

The Eklutna tribe is similar to the Kenaitze Indians or the Douglas tribe, Stephan said, because each of those Native communities has had non-Natives move in and build cities around them. He considers Eklutna rural, even if its residents shop at Wal-Mart.

When it comes to community size limits, the basic regulations developed from ANILCA are fairly clear: Communities with fewer than 2,500 residents are presumed to be rural, while those with more than 7,000 residents are thought to be nonrural. The status of communities in between is determined by other factors, such as whether an area is linked to an urban center or tied to the road system.

The Kenai decision, however, pushes the basic idea of what is considered rural. Kenai, with 7,005 residents, could be considered nonrural by its population alone. Combine it with nearby Soldotna, Sterling and Nikiski, and the population reaches up to 20,321, only about 10,000 fewer than Juneau.

Board members said in the meeting and later interviews that many Kenai residents clearly live a rural lifestyle.

How the board makes these determinations is in flux. The Office of Subsistence Management is revising its guidelines for declaring areas rural. According to regulations, the board must also soon revisit determinations made for all Alaska communities, using revised population figures from the 2000 census.

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