Delaying one of the most critical decisions of his political career, Gov. Tony Knowles this morning announced that he will hold a "subsistence leadership summit" in Anchorage next month if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to an extended deadline for appealing the Katie John case.
Knowles, under extraordinary pressure from Native groups and state sovereignty advocates, said he wants a final solution to the subsistence controversy.
The solution must include the state regaining management of its fish and game resources, protection for the subsistence way of life and the uniting of Alaskans, the governor said during a news conference in Anchorage today and during an interview in Juneau on Wednesday.
If the state appeals a circuit court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, that is not going to settle the issue, Knowles said. "If we win, we lose. If we lose, we lose. ... Let's take it out of the federal courts and bring it home to Alaska."
Aug. 6 is the deadline for the state to appeal the 9th Circuit Court ruling in the Katie John case, which upheld federal management of fisheries in navigable waters running through federal land. The state Department of Law on Wednesday asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for a 60-day extension, and Knowles said he expects to get at least 30 days.
The case is named for an Athabascan elder who in 1990 was denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River. Her lawsuit called upon the federal government to enforce the rural preference for subsistence in the Alaska National Interest Conservation Lands Act of 1980. The state has been out of compliance with ANILCA since 1989, when the Alaska Supreme Court struck down a rural preference law as being in violation of the state's constitutional guarantee of equal access to resources.
Five special sessions of the Legislature, under three governors, have been held to consider a possible constitutional amendment to bring the state in compliance with ANILCA.
The last one, in September 1999, failed when the Senate fell two votes short of the necessary two-thirds margin to put the issue on the general election ballot. That triggered the long-threatened federal takeover of fisheries management.
The Alaska Federation of Natives and other Native groups, as well as the Bush Caucus in the Legislature, have pressured Knowles to drop the case. Meanwhile, a couple of Republican legislators, insisting that Knowles' oath of office requires him to exhaust all legal remedies in defense of state sovereignty, have said it would be an impeachable offense to let the appeal deadline expire.
"I'm not afraid to make a decision on it," Knowles said. "(But) a democracy should not look to the legal system to develop public policy."
Knowles said all stakeholders in the subsistence issue, as well as some groups that haven't been involved to date, will be invited to the summit to be held at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In addition to Native groups, hunters and legislators, Knowles said he will ask for delegates from business, religious, cultural and academic entities. No date has been set, but the summit is being aimed for mid-August.
Rep. Reggie Joule, a Kotzebue Democrat who is co-chairman of the Bush Caucus, said that short of dropping the appeal, the summit was the best possible outcome by the deadline.
"No. 1, I think it's been a while since the stakeholders have been at the same table, outside of the legislative process," Joule said.
But Knowles' political opponents were contemptuous.
"Can you imagine the Battle of the Bulge and Patton sitting around saying, 'Oh, I think we'll have a summit'?" said Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who ran for governor against Knowles in 1998. "Now we have people only with courage enough to call meetings. ... This is a diversion to draw attention away from himself and his responsibilities to an emotional issue."
Taylor, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said impeachment is "one of many alternatives open to the Legislature."
Knowles met with John, 86, at her fish camp over the weekend. "She only wants to protect her right to subsistence fishing so she can raise her family the best way she knows how," the governor said.
Knowles lamented "the terrible divisiveness that has taken over our state," acknowledging that rural Natives see the Katie John case as "a symbol of a perceived war."
"That war - perceived or real - must end," he said.