Thousands may be stripped of federal subsistence rights

Board taking close look at rural status of several areas

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Thousands of Alaskans are at risk of losing their federal subsistence hunting and fishing rights.

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The Federal Subsistence Board is meeting in Anchorage and taking a close look at the rural status of several areas of the state. For the first time, the board is considering stripping some communities of their rural status.

The meeting began Tuesday and continued Wednesday.

Under Alaska's unique federal subsistence program, residents in "rural" communities have a priority over other users for fish and wildlife on federal lands. Many Alaska communities were first granted rural status in 1990. The six-member board is required under federal law to evaluate communities every 10 years, relying on U.S. Census and other information.

The board has a responsibility to preserve the cultural heritage of hunting, fishing and gathering berries in Kodiak, said resident Geraldine Watson.

More than 12,000 residents in Kodiak and nearby communities face shortened hunting seasons and less fishing time if the board accepts the change.

The board is also assessing the rural status of Point MacKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Sterling and areas near Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, and some communities connected to Ketchikan by road.

"To vote us urban is cultural, economic and social genocide to the Alutiiq people and our way of life which we have lived for thousands of years," said Watson, reading a statement written by her husband, Gary Watson.

If the board accepts the proposals, residents would still have subsistence rights under state law, as Alaskans do, said board member Niles Cesar. But they'd lose their priority and would compete for fish and wildlife with all the state's residents.

"I don't want my kids to think subsistence is McDonald's or Pizza Hut," said Tommy Johnson Jr., 26.

Kodiak should remain rural, residents said. Its population has changed little since 1990.

High fuel prices have made the island seem even more remote, making traveling and shipping more expensive. That's boosted the costs of cereal, milk and other food at stores, making subsistence even more important in recent years, residents said.

"It is every bit as rural as it was in 1990, when the board made this decision," said Thomas Schwantes, who lives in Bells Flats, a community near Kodiak proposed for urban status.

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