Subsistence panel OKs amendment

Posted: Wednesday, November 07, 2001

A package of proposed constitution and law changes to resolve the subsistence controversy required compromises from both Natives and commercial fishing interests.

As a result, Attorney General Bruce Botelho said he doesn't expect vigorous support for the work product of the Subsistence Drafting Committee formed by Gov. Tony Knowles.

The committee finished its work in Juneau on Tuesday, completing the process begun by the governor's subsistence leadership summit in August.

"It would surprise me if any given group would embrace what we have done with great enthusiasm," said Botelho, chairman of the 11-member committee. "I think it's going to be more of a question of whether people will say, 'We can live with this because we think in the big scheme of things this will work, it'll return (fish and game) management to the state.' "

As called for by the majority at the summit, the committee drafted a proposed state constitutional amendment for a rural subsistence priority "over all other consumptive uses." That is intended to bring Alaska into conformance with federal law and end federal oversight of subsistence on federal land and navigable waters.

But the proposed amendment goes further by allowing the Legislature to designate "lower priorities" for subsistence after rural needs have been met. Those priorities could be granted to urban residents with a history of noncommercial harvesting of fish and game and to "small distinct local communities" that, while not technically rural, have a "customary and traditional" use of the resources.

That's intended to counter complaints that the rural priority is discriminatory.

Without writing actual statutory language, the committee also identified concepts for changes in state law:

* Using more than population numbers to determine whether an area is rural or not.

* Specifying that noncommercial exchanges of money for fish and game must be traditional and not a growing enterprise that competes with commercial fishing.

* Empowering regional councils, including local Natives, by limiting the circumstances in which the state boards of fish and game can reject their recommendations.

* Clarifying that "a meaningful opportunity" to participate in subsistence does not guarantee the taking of fish or game.

If the package were enacted by the Legislature, "We'd have a good law, we'd have a good system in place," Botelho said.

Committee member David Bedford of Juneau, subsistence chairman for the United Fishermen of Alaska, was disappointed that the group didn't recommend changes to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the 1980 federal law that created the rural subsistence priority.

"The (proposed) technical changes to ANILCA reduce the level of uncertainty that we have in the interpretation of a law that is in many ways fragmentary," Bedford said afterward. "What we do by not clarifying those things in ANILCA is we leave to the federal courts the responsibility of gap-filling a great deal on that law."

Committee member Byron Mallott of Yakutat, a longtime Native leader, said he also compromised. "We've sublimated in some powerful ways the Native presence at this table."

The committee decided against recommending formal co-management, under which tribes would have some authority in regulating harvests.

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