State, feds still uneasy

Subsistence takeover remains unresolved

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

JUNEAU -- The first year of the federal government's takeover of subsistence fishing on most Alaska waters was uneasy, and bigger conflicts may be ahead, state and federal officials told lawmakers Wednesday. Federal authorities took over management of subsistence fishing on navigable waters in and adjacent to federal land on Oct. 1, 1999 after a constitutional amendment that would have reconciled state and federal subsistence laws failed in the state Senate.

That set up a fundamental conflict in the way fish are managed. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game juggles seasons, openings and limits to provide opportunities for commercial, sport and subsistence fishers. Federal managers, however, must concentrate on providing subsistence fishing for rural Alaskans, who are guaranteed a preference under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conserva-tion Act as a way to protect subsistence hunting and fishing rights for rural Alaska Natives.

''They're only worrying about federal subsistence users,'' said Frank Rue, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ''They're not worrying about state users and all the other user groups.''

Rue and Tom Boyd, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant regional director for subsistence, sat cordially side by side as they fielded questions from the House Resources Committee, but the underlying conflict between the agencies occasionally bubbled to the surface.

''Obviously we have different mandates,'' Boyd said. ''The tension is that we could go in different directions.''

The takeover created a patchwork of management authority in Alaska. For example, on a single river, the state might manage commercial fisheries at the mouth, and sport and personal-use fishing on several sections upriver that run through state land. Meanwhile, federal managers deal with subsistence fisheries on the sections running through or alongside federal land.

''There's a great potential for conflict, confusion, duplication of effort and a whole array of problems,'' Boyd said.

Relatively few changes were made last year, partly because federal agencies employed few fisheries managers in Alaska. But both Rue and Boyd said they expect federal presence to build, and with it, the potential for conflicts.

''The federal government is just getting started at this,'' Boyd said. ''The state's had decades.''

So far, state and federal officials have worked mostly in cooperation, the two agreed. However, Rue voiced a few complaints about federal interference as state managers were setting escapement levels -- the number of fish allowed upstream to spawn -- on rivers in western Alaska.

''That was a place where we kind of got in a ditch a little bit with the federal biologists and felt they were in our business a little too much,'' Rue said. Later, he said federal managers were arguing for higher escapement levels, a management decision that would have reduced the total number of fish available.

Boyd acknowledged that there have been some near-conflicts.

''Has it been easy, has it been smooth? I would say we've had some rough spots,'' Boyd said. ''We've walked into a legacy of distrust in rural Alaska.''

Committee Co-Chairwoman Bev Masek, R-Willow, quizzed Rue and Boyd about areas of the state where federal and state management might clash. Rue responded by gesturing at the giant map of the state on the hearing room wall.

''Look at the map, it's federal, state land just scattered all over the place,'' Rue said, then began ticking off potential trouble spots, including:

n Southeast Alaska, where virtually all waterways qualify as federal because of the Tongass National Forest.

n The Kenai Peninsula, which was declared rural by the Federal Subsistence Board last year, even though it's on the road system and heavily used by city-dwellers from Anchorage.

n The Yukon and Copper rivers, where fish runs must be allocated between commercial fishermen downstream and subsistence users far upstream.

Rue also raised the prospect of a growing federal fish bureaucracy in Alaska. The department has urged federal managers to rely on the state's long-established systems for the information it needs.

''They're hiring a whole lot of Department of Fish and Game people,'' Rue said. ''It is just inefficient to have two systems and it's going to be costly.''

Boyd reminded the committee that the federal government has consistently advocated returning unified management to the state -- provided it adopts the rural priority.

''It is not our intent to go out there and be overlords of the situation,'' Boyd said. ''Everyone is cooperating to the extent that it's legally possible.''

The subsistence conflict arose in 1989, when the Alaska Supreme Court found that the rural priority in the lands act conflicted with the state constitution, which guarantees equal access to fish and game. Federal managers took over subsistence hunting on federal lands in 1990.

In 1994, the landmark Katie John decision gave the federal government jurisdiction to manage subsistence fishing on many of the state's waters. After more than five years of delays brokered by the state's congressional delegation and abortive attempts to amend the constitution, federal authorities took over in 1999.

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