A good decision for Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, September 04, 2001

The following editorial appeared Aug. 28 in the Anchorage Daily News:

In one firm stroke, Gov. Tony Knowles gave the state of Alaska a chance to get back on the right side of rural subsistence policy Monday when he dropped further appeals of the Katie John lawsuit. The job now is to summon the political will to get the issue onto the ballot for Alaskans to decide in November 2002.

The governor was unequivocal. The issue, he said again and again, is protecting rural subsistence rights. It is giving Alaskans the chance to decide the issue at the ballot box. It is the kind of society we are creating here. It is stopping further deterioration in relations between urban and rural Alaskans. It is not being satisfied with a legislative deadlock in which "the status quo is unacceptable."

"We will do what is right," the governor said, in a spasm of high-ground rhetoric that, for now at least, entirely fits the mood of the moment. "Alaska is on the brink of breaking the bonds of gridlock that, if left unattended, could permanently drive us apart."

The governor will strive to build on the momentum generated by the Subsistence Leadership Summit earlier this month, which called for a rural subsistence constitutional amendment. The governor said he would ask business, civic, religious and community leaders to follow up with further work on the summit's recommendations, including wording of an amendment, co-management of resources, and other necessary legislation. "The more public involvement, the better," said Gov. Knowles.

The decision lays to rest a decade-old lawsuit that has cost the state both credibility with the Native community and, in previous legal losses, some authority over navigable waters. Attorney General Bruce Botelho said that, legally, the governor's decision is final and binding on the state of Alaska and all future governors.

Anti-subsistence amendment hawks grouched almost immediately, but nobody overreacted. In questioning after the announcement, the governor repeatedly refused either to criticize the hawks or to back down from his top priority of protecting subsistence. That means the action moves into both the public and the legislative arenas, where the stage is set for movement in the next several months. In that, the governor was right about two more things:

First, letting go of the Katie John appeal clears away an important distraction and "gives us the ability to get the rest of the job done."

And second, we just can't let the urban-rural situation continue to deteriorate.

This was a good decision for Katie John, the Alaska Native community, Gov. Knowles, and the people of Alaska. What remains is to find a few more votes in the Alaska Senate to do what the great majority of Alaskans say they want which is to vote on a rural subsistence amendment to the Alaska Constitution. It is emphatically the right thing, and on Monday afternoon it felt good to hear the state's highest elected official stand up for that.

(Wednesday's Empire will include the Fairbanks News-Miner's editorial on the governor's Katie John decision. - Editor)

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