Ruling spurs locals to ask for subsistence rights

Douglas group among those pushing for rural designation

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

The Douglas Indian Association wants special subsistence consideration. So does the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission. So does the Juneau Tlingit-Haida Community Council.

It happened in Kenai, earlier this month, when the Federal Subsistence Board decided those living on the entire peninsula -- including Kenai, Soldotna and Homer -- would be considered rural residents under federal rules.

Such a consideration gives those residents a hunting and fishing priority over other users, such as sports or commercial concerns. Subsistence harvests are the top concern of federal wildlife managers, though the rural priority becomes an advantage only when stocks of game or fish run low.

Harold Frank Jr., environmental planner for the Douglas Indian Association, testified to the federal subsistence regional advisory council for Southeast in March.

Frank said the DIA's 400 tribal members would like to be considered subsistence users under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It isn't their fault, he said, that Juneau urbanized.

``It's just that the population grew up around them,'' Frank said. He said other places, such as Sitka, have been allowed a subsistence priority under similar conditions.

Peggy Fox, deputy assistant regional director for subsistence management with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Sitka was different in one big way. The area of Sitka -- not a specific group, not Natives or non-Natives -- was determined to be rural for subsistence purposes. ANILCA deals in zones, not people.

The Douglas group is a federally recognized tribe. As a tribe, the DIA enjoys a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. But that relationship isn't enough to get what Frank wants. Fox said a tribe is a group, not an area.

ANILCA, a 1980 law, allows for a rural priority for hunting and fishing on federal land in Alaska -- more than half of the state's landmass.

With the rural priority, subsistence users get first crack at wildlife when stocks are low. The determination of what's rural and what's urban depends on population size. Bolstering the definition of urban in the Congressional record are four communities specifically listed as urban -- Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Juneau.

Fox said those communities are pretty much beyond the reach of ruralization under ANILCA. ``That's where I think we can reasonably draw the line,'' she said.

Bob Willard, Juneau's representative to the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission, made a formal request to the federal subsistence board earlier this month. He wants an adjustment made to the urban status of Douglas, Juneau and Auke Bay. He said traditional subsistence gatherers in the area shouldn't be barred from subsistence just because Juneau is urban under ANILCA. The people are the key, not the place, he said.

``I think that the federal subsistence board may have misinterpreted the rural description as (meaning) eligibility,'' Willard said. ``I don't believe it meant eligibility. We're asking for a subsistence opportunity.''

Rather than getting a rural priority, Willard is pushing for the right for traditional use of fisheries and the like in the area Natives have used for ages. Willard said the issue isn't about catching a lot of fish to put on the table. Rather, it's a cultural hunger.

``They (the elders) will tell us where we can go and where we shouldn't,'' Willard said. ``The children are losing their tribal obligation to pass their knowledge on to their children. That's the problem. Right now, they're facing the loss of their cultural identity.''

Another question raised by DIA that the board may consider next month is whether Douglas is part of Juneau under the law. Douglas, despite its historic efforts to remain a unique town, is a part of Juneau as far as the state's concerned.

Does that mean it's urban?

Fox said that's an open question. ``It doesn't necessarily mean that,'' she said. ``(But) it could be construed to mean that.''

At the June meeting of the federal subsistence board, for which no date's been set yet, staff will ask the board for direction on the applications to change urban designations to rural.

A determination could come quickly, or be years away. The Fish and Wildlife Service is looking for a company to come up with a method to determine what's rural and what's urban in Alaska. Also, the board may want to wait until information from the 2000 census is available, which would be about 18 months from now, Fox said.

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