Legislature should note parallels between civil, subsistence rights

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

The second session of the 22nd Legislature convened Jan. 14, the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

The Legislature should make more than a passing note of the timing.

This year may be among the most historic in the state's civil rights history. The 60 men and women who will represent our interests in Juneau have one of the greatest opportunities the state Legislature has ever faced.

They have a chance to put to rest the dispute over Native subsistence rights that has simmered since the mid-20th century, when territorial wardens began enforcing federal fish and game laws.

The state took over subsistence management with statehood, but lost that privilege on federal lands because it wouldn't comply with the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which calls for a subsistence hunting and fishing priority for rural residents.

The Legislature can end that long fight by finding a fair way to assure a subsistence priority for rural residents. It starts with allowing the public to vote on a constitutional amendment that would create a tiered system involving tribal co-management that gives urban subsistence users a slightly lower priority.

The state would regain control of all fish and game management, the urban-rural divide would die a fitful death after protests from hunting rights groups and the Legislature and the rest of the state could move on to other issues.

Alaska once led the nation in civil rights, 14 years before it was a state. On Feb. 16, 1945, while Alaska Natives, blacks and other minorities were working with whites for a common goal in World War II, Alaska passed the nation's first anti-discrimination law.

With some leadership in the Legislature and a creative look at an old issue, Alaska can get there again.

--Alaska Newspapers Inc.

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