Panel calls for a rural preference

Summit seeks ballot measure to solve subsistence quandary

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE - After two days of heartfelt, emotional discussion, Gov. Tony Knowles' subsistence summit Thursday called on the state Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before all Alaska voters guaranteeing a rural priority on subsistence.

The panel - made up of about 40 leaders of business, Native and religious groups, politicians and social activists - wants voters to decide the issue by 2002.

But more work is needed to find a compromise that would satisfy those in the state Senate who oppose changing the constitutional provision guaranteeing all Alaskans equal access to wildlife resources, said Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.

Halford, who was among eight in the Senate who previously opposed such a move, said he remains against a constitutional change without concessions within the federal laws that grant a priority to rural residents.

"I doubt that it initially changes anyone's position," Halford said.

Knowles called the summit as a way of protecting the rural subsistence way of life, regaining state control of federal lands and waters within Alaska and quelling the bitter divide between urban and rural residents on the issue.

After two days of meetings in Anchorage, the panel also recommended state and federal officials work with affected interest groups to craft a constitutional amendment granting a rural priority.

It also called on the Legislature to create a system of co-management of subsistence hunting and fishing that includes Native organizations as well as other Alaska users.

Native representatives clashed on Thursday over whether aboriginal groups should co-manage subsistence. It's a system in place now with the federal government in which local and regional advisory councils actively participate in those issues.

Native officials said they don't want to give up any more power than they have under the current federal system.

"We have more power today as Alaskan Natives as a whole with the federal government than we did 10 years ago," said Carl Marrs, president of Cook Inlet Region Inc. "So, we're not at the table begging for a constitutional amendment."

The federal government has regulated subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land after the state Supreme Court found in 1989 that it was unconstitutional to adhere to the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The act granted a preference for hunting and fishing to rural residents as part of a Congressional compromise intended to grant Natives the right to follow their traditional existence after they surrendered aboriginal rights under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Thursday's recommendations also drew opposition from urban, sportfishing and hunting representatives who depend on equal access to fish and game.

"Right now the sides are very polarized," said Ron Somerville, of the Territorial Sportsmen board. He predicted the gap would grow wider.

Knowles said he would continue to drum up public support for the proposals and he believed that would break the logjam in the Legislature.

"I would certainly hope the Legislature, those who said no, or never, would reconsider that and respond to what I think is an urgent call by Alaskans," Knowles said.

Halford said he would take the proposal to his caucus and begin talks with Knowles on how to move the issue forward. He said all the groups that are affected by the plan need to work for a compromise.

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