My Turn: One of the political season's ironies

Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2002

Sometimes a politician's position can change depending on who she is talking to.

This spring Fran Ulmer told representatives of the United Fishermen of Alaska that, as part of a solution for the subsistence controversy, she supported making changes to ANILCA, the federal subsistence law.

This was no great surprise. Most advocates for a subsistence priority support the priority but also acknowledge that the federal subsistence law has some pretty serious flaws. The lieutenant governor recognized those flaws and, as a member of the Governor's Subsistence Task Force, helped write proposed amendments for ANILCA to address some of the federal law's shortcomings.

But last week Fran gave a different audience a different and contradictory message. Fran Ulmer told representatives of the Alaska Federation of Natives that she opposes any changes to ANILCA.

Both can't be true. You can't both support and oppose something. But what's the big deal about a politician changing her message to suit her audience? And what's the big deal about changes to this federal law?

ANILCA is a big deal to Alaskans who care about our fish and game resources and about subsistence. ANILCA provides priority access to fish and game in our state for rural residents to harvest for subsistence. However, the federal law has some significant holes in it and changes to ANILCA are necessary to remedy these shortcomings.

For example, ANILCA allows cash sale of subsistence fish and game but doesn't set limits. A federal court filled the gap in the law by saying it would allow sale of subsistence at a level that could supplant commercial and sport harvests.

Before we embrace ANILCA's rural subsistence priority we should, as Ms. Ulmer advocated until last week, close this gap in the law by amending ANILCA to limit cash sale of subsistence.

Another modification to ANILCA that Ms. Ulmer helped author and supported up until last week was a provision that would have reduced interference in management of Alaska's fish and game by the federal courts.

The federal courts are the wild card in the deck, interpreting subsistence from offices in San Francisco, not from a village in the interior or a town on Alaska's coast. As a result some of the court's decisions have been far off the mark. Like permitting customary trade at levels as high as the combined sport and commercial harvest.

However, some rural Alaskans want the federal courts involved in interpreting ANILCA because they wish to use the courts to expand subsistence. For example, some attorneys have asked the courts to decide that all sport and commercial use must be completely eliminated before any restriction could be placed on subsistence. In short subsistence would not be regulated to provide for sustained yield or for conservation.

This issue should be dealt with by Alaskans, not by judges in San Francisco.

UFA continues to believe that Alaska would be wise to protect subsistence by adopting a rural subsistence priority consistent with ANILCA.

However UFA also insists that our state would be foolish to do so without enacting at the same time the changes to ANILCA that Lt. Gov. Ulmer helped write and supported for so many years. Those changes are necessary to ensure that the subsistence priority is implemented fairly, that our resources are protected, and that all uses of our fish and game resources, subsistence, sport and commercial, are not unreasonably restricted.

It is one of the political season's striking ironies that Frank Murkowski is now the only gubernatorial candidate who calls for the sort of reasonable and necessary changes to ANILCA that Ulmer wrote and advocated.

From UFA's perspective, Fran had it right up until last week.

Now only Frank does.

David Bedford of Juneau chairs the Subsistence Committee for United Fishermen of Alaska and was a member of Gov. Knowles Subsistence Summit.

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