Empire editorial: Still in search of a subsistence solution

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2001

We're hopeful a subsistence summit called by Gov. Tony Knowles for next month will lead to the end of one of Alaska's longest-simmering political and cultural battles.

Those on the front lines have included village tribal leaders and big-city legislators, urban hunters and rural fishermen, federal policy-makers and state biologists. And, at one time or another, just about everybody else in the state.

Depending on who you talk to, the issue is local control, preserving traditions, equality under the law, the underlying principles of the state constitution and the ability to get enough to eat.

The issue has been alive for decades, but the inspiration for the summit comes from a looming deadline in the Katie John case. John, an Athabascan in her mid-80s, got into a legal battle over a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River. To make a very long story short, she won and the federal government took over regulation of subsistence hunting and fishing in much of the state. To protect subsistence, additional limits may be put on commercial and sport harvests. Thus, the widespread interest.

Knowles, who once successfully courted Native voters, angered many of his allies by appealing the Katie John decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He lost and now must decide whether to take the case up to the final level of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The deadline is Aug. 7, a little more than two weeks away. Native and subsistence groups want the appeal dropped. But sport hunting and fishing groups and many Republican lawmakers want the Democratic governor to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Knowles last week proposed an alternative solution. He asked for an extension of the appeal deadline while he tries once more to find a solution.

He hopes that solution will come from a subsistence summit at the University of Alaska Anchorage in mid-August. Invitations will go out to Native groups, hunters, legislators, and leaders from business, religious, cultural and academic organizations. His hope is to come up with a compromise to return subsistence management to the state and an end to the court battles.

We hope it works. But we're not ignorant of the depth of the divide over subsistence. Five special legislative sessions have been held in the past to try to come up with a solution and none have succeeded. Despite polls showing substantial support, efforts have failed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to resolve differences between the federal and state approaches to subsistence that led to the federal takeover.

Some Native groups see the federal government as a better overseer of their food-gathering needs. Some lawmakers see Knowles' reluctance to appeal the John case as a betrayal of the public trust.

In the long run, a compromise is needed. Alaskans have other issues that need our attention. We hope the delay in the appeal date is granted and the summit succeeds.

It's time for Alaskans to come closer together, rather than split farther apart.

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