Steps toward healing the urban-rural divide

Empire editorial

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The decision by Gov. Tony Knowles not to appeal the Katie John case again was a good if less-than-perfect decision on behalf of the people of Alaska.

The best course would have been for Knowles (or an earlier governor) and a two-thirds majority of each house of the Legislature to have cooperated years ago as partners to resolve the two main issues. Knowles would have agreed to appeal the case again in order to resolve the state's rights question that centers on the definition and control of navigable waters that run through public lands. A two-thirds majority of each house of the Legislature would have agreed to place a constitutional amendment before the voters of Alaska, giving constituents the chance to approve or reject a rural preference for subsistence activities during times of shortage.

The fact that no such partnership was struck during the last decade and five special legislative sessions - or even last week - is a sad commentary on politics in Alaska.

While it's true that the Katie John case always has been extremely complicated, putting a subsistence amendment before the people always has been available as the great simplifier.

The justices of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put it succinctly in their December 1995 decision, which denied the state's appeal, when they said:

"The issue raised by the parties cries out for a legislative, not a judicial, solution. If the Alaska Legislature were to amend the state constitution or otherwise comply with ANILCA's rural subsistence priority, the state could resume management of subsistence uses on public lands, including navigable waters. Neither the heavy administrative burden nor the complicated regulatory scheme that may result from our decision would be necessary. ..."

Why, then, has no constitutional amendment been submitted to voters?

A rural subsistence preference and a constitutional amendment have widespread bipartisan support. Were it up to a simple majority of each house, the amendment would have been on the ballot long ago. In the first special session called to address the issue in 1990, a proposal to offer an amendment passed one chamber and fell a single vote short of the required two-thirds majority in the other. Similar scenarios unfolded during special sessions in 1998 and 1999, with the House passing an amendment and the Senate recording a simple majority in favor. That doesn't get it on the ballot, however.

(And, unlike some states, Alaska does not allow citizen initiatives to generate constitutional amendments.)

A minority of legislators has blocked such an amendment, knowing polls show voters would pass it overwhelmingly. The obvious question is why would legislators prevent the people from having their say.

Against this backdrop, it was ironic to hear the current governor described this week as a "lying hypocrite."

Over the course of this long battle, Knowles has changed his mind. He has done so in the open. He stood publicly for appeal until he decided it was a losing fight that would continue to polarize the citizens of this state. Alaska's rural-urban divide grows wider and more detrimental to the well being of our rural residents every year.

The governor has called and continues to call for the Legislature to craft a constitutional amendment and submit it to voters. Legislative and statewide voter approval of such an amendment represents the surest way to begin to close the gap.

Approval by Alaskans of a rural preference in subsistence activities also provides the opportunity to fulfill Congress' intention, specified in 1980 with its enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, that Alaska - not the federal government - manage subsistence hunting and fishing on its public lands.

Alaska has stood at the proverbial fork in the road for a decade. Finally, a choice has been made and a journey has begun. We hope it continues without delays, detours or additional name-calling.

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