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Gov. Tony Knowles spent last week talking with Native and legislative leaders, trying to sell a compromise proposal that would affect the appeal of the Katie John subsistence case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Knowles' offer is that he will appeal the case only if lawmakers call themselves into a special session and agree to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would give rural preference to subsistence, according to Native groups and Katie John's attorney.
Bob King, spokesman for the governor, confirmed that Knowles has been "looking into a proposal along those lines" and will announce his plans this week.
"The governor is looking at a resolution that addresses his two priorities: retaining a rural subsistence priority and retaining state management authority," King said Friday.
So far, the idea is receiving generally negative responses from both sides of the issue.
"That's not acceptable," said one of the advocates for appealing the case, Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican. "You don't trade defending the sovereignty of Alaska for a political vote."
"The Native community is concerned about this approach," said Heather Kendall-Miller, Katie John's attorney, who would like the governor to forget about the appeal, since she has won in the lower courts. "They'd rather see the governor stand on principle and drop the appeal."
"It's flat-out blackmail," said Carl Rosier, president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state's largest sport hunting and fishing group. "I don't see it as a compromise at all. If he can't stand up for the state's rights, he's not fulfilling his role as governor."
Subsistence has been one of the state's most divisive issues for more than a decade.
A federal law enacted in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, gives priority on federal lands to rural residents who take fish and game for subsistence. But in 1989, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing violated the state constitution. Because state officials managed fish and game, they were bound by the Supreme Court decision.
In response to a lawsuit by Athabaskan elder Katie John, a federal appeals court ruled in 1995 that the federal government could ensure rural Alaskans' subsistence needs by taking over fisheries management in navigable waters running through federal lands and adjacent to them. The court last month reaffirmed its ruling.
Knowles has until Aug. 7 to decide whether to appeal the case to the U.S Supreme Court.
Alaska lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a constitutional amendment that would make a rural preference for subsistence hunting acceptable under state law.
Many opponents in and outside the Legislature have argued that the rural priority discriminates against urban Alaskans who want to hunt and fish for food.