Knowles says momentum behind subsistence amendment

Posted: Friday, February 15, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A constitutional amendment on subsistence was introduced by Gov. Tony Knowles on Thursday that he hopes will break a decade-long stalemate over the issue.

Knowles is proposing an amendment to bring the state into compliance with federal law and allow Alaska to regain control of subsistence on federal lands and waters.

''The vast majority of Alaskans are united in demanding the opportunity to vote to protect the subsistence way of life,'' Knowles said Thursday in announcing the measure.

He called on the Legislature to vote to put the matter on the November ballot. And Knowles again said that the amendment he has offered up is a ''starting point'' for debate on the issue.

At least one lawmaker who had been opposed to past constitutional amendments on subsistence voiced support for the plan on Thursday.

Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, said the federal subsistence rules that grant a rural priority to subsistence is ''discrimination by zip code.'' Ward expressed support for portions of Knowles' plan, but said he still has reservations about it.

''Without a doubt, we will have some very interesting caucuses,'' Ward said.

Because of a conflict between the state constitution and federal law, the federal government took over subsistence management on its own lands in Alaska.

Alaska's constitution requires equal access to its fish and game resources, something that was important in the push for statehood.

''The passion involved in this subject is obviously very deep,'' said Knowles.

To regain control over subsistence on the two-thirds of Alaska that is in federal hands Alaska has to provide for a rural priority in such practices.

Knowles -- a Democrat in his last year in office -- has made resolving the issue a top priority. He wants voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that gives rural residents first priority to subsistence resources.

The measure also says the Legislature may grant a secondary priority for subsistence to urban residents who have a history of dependence on the resource.

But administration officials concede it will be a tough sell before the Legislature, which has refused such an amendment despite five special sessions on the issue.

This year's efforts are made more difficult by the an increasing frustration expressed by Knowles' chief allies on subsistence, the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The federation board of directors voted on Tuesday to back Knowles' efforts. But Albert Kookesh, a board co-chairman and state Representative from Angoon, said some in the Native community don't want a resolution to the conflict

''The Native community is very satisfied in rural Alaska with the federal board, they are very satisfied with the response they get from the federal board,'' Kookesh said.

He said Native organizations have spent $20 million over 10 years seeking a resolution to the dilemma. If there's a resolution to the conflict, they want it soon.

AFN leaders have already vowed to push for amendments that make any state deal on subsistence closely mirror the federal management scheme, which allows for Native participation in deciding subsistence issues locally.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, who has been a key opponent of changing the state constitution's equal access provisions, could not be reached for comment.

But Halford said earlier that he is considering proposing an amendment that would grant a local preference to allow Natives and others in urban areas with ties to subsistence to also participate.

The House has passed a constitutional amendment in the past, but it has failed in the Senate.

''Having experienced the position of the Senate over the last several years, to hear them suggest this particular approach I think is a giant step,'' said House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage.

Porter said both House and Senate legislative leaders plan to meet with the AFN officials ''within the next month'' to discuss several issues, including subsistence.

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