"If the Kenai can go rural, anywhere can go rural," said Elaina Spraker, referring to the Federal Subsistence Board's decision to designate the entire Kenai Peninsula a rural area.
Brought before the board on Thursday at the request of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, the measure was approved by a 4-2 vote.
"We just shake our heads because we don't know what (the Kenaitze Indians) are going to gain," Spraker said.
In her testimony during a March public hearing, Rosalie Tepp, tribal chair for the Kenaitzes, listed several reasons why the now-urban areas of the peninsula should be reclassified as rural, including a lack of jobs, distance from Anchorage, and because other federal agencies recognize the entire peninsula as rural.
Several Native Alaskans compared losing subsistence rights to the extermination of their culture and lifestyle during the March hearing.
"Subsistence is a promise from the government to the Dena'ina, a symbol of our people and culture," said Mary Ann Mills. "If we lose our culture ... that is genocide."
But Spraker disagrees. She helped form a coalition five years ago to battle against a rural designation for the peninsula.
"We walked away in total disgust and defeat," she said. "I've never witnessed anything so biased in my life."
In 1990 the board classified the peninsula's population centers as urban. Only Seldovia, Port Graham, Nanwalek, Ninilchik, Cooper Landing and Hope were listed as rural. In 1998, the Kenaitze tribe requested a review of the urban status, saying it blocked many of its members from participating in traditional hunting and fishing activities.
At a public hearing in Kenai on March 1, about 100 people attended. A substantial number supporting the rural designation attended the Thursday hearing in Anchorage.
The board's decision allows residents of the peninsula to take part in subsistence hunting and fishing on federal lands.
"Not to take away how someone was raised, but to say I'm a subsistence user and I should have exclusive rights to the resource is absurd," said Spraker. "Over time they'll really see where this wasn't a good idea."
Karl Kircher, commercial fisher who setnets off Coho Loop, also opposed the board's decision.
"I sympathize with the Kenaitzes," said Kircher. "They've lost a lot of their traditional fisheries due to urbanization. As a commercial fisherman, I kind of feel the same way. Our fisheries have been extremely limited because of urbanization and tourism, so we -- commercial fisherman -- have lost a lot because of that, as well.
"I would hate to say I don't understand, because I do."
The Kenaitze request was supported by the regional council that advises the subsistence board.
During the March public hearing on the issue, Rita Smagge, executive director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, argued that the reason so many people have been, and are, moving to the Kenai Peninsula is because it is rural.
"Many people moved here because they didn't want to live in the big city," Smagge said. "Most live here to live the rural life, not the urban life."
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