Optimism guarded as special subsistence session starts

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- As lawmakers began their sixth try at solving the state's subsistence conflict in a special session Friday, optimism was not high, but some held out hope for a solution.

''We have a chance,'' said Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage. ''I certainly don't mean to imply an excellent chance, or even a good chance.''

Lawmakers are considering the subsistence issue in a special session, along with budget and bond bills and other issues they failed to agree on during the regular session.

Besides a proposed constitutional amendment from Gov. Tony Knowles, Ward has his own suggestion. Both proposals lack support from key groups.

Alaska's constitution conflicts with a federal law requiring a priority for rural subsistence users in Alaska. That conflict led to a federal takeover of fish and game management on federal land in Alaska.

Knowles has proposed a constitutional amendment that would create a rural priority but also would give some urban residents with traditional ties to subsistence a similar priority.

Ward's proposal would amend the constitution to say the Legislature ''may'' provide a preference in times of shortage for residents living near the fish and wildlife resources who have customarily and traditionally used those resources in a rural area.

That's in contrast to the requirement that the Legislature ''shall'' adopt a rural preference in the governor's proposal.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told reporters in Washington, D.C., that Ward's proposal may work, but it would require changes in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which is the law that mandates the rural preference.

''If that amendment was passed, it does change from the concept of 'rural' to 'local,''' Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News. ''We can accommodate that in changes to Title 8 back here.''

The Alaska Federation of Natives, however, has opposed opening up the federal law to changes, and the Legislature would have difficulty mustering the two-thirds vote needed to pass a constitutional amendment without AFN's support.

The Alaska Outdoor Council opposes any rural preference for subsistence, saying that would unfairly discriminate against urban residents.

''At its most basic level, it is a violation of all Alaskans' civil rights,'' the Outdoor Council's Dick Bishop said in a hearing Thursday on the governor's proposal.

Ward said neither AFN, nor the Outdoor Council, likes his proposal, but he hopes that will change.

''This is kind of coming right down the middle and getting it resolved,'' Ward said.

Attorney General Bruce Botelho said he sees potential problems in Ward's proposal, but he is encouraged Ward is trying to find a solution since he has been part of a faction in the Senate that opposed a rural priority.

It's not clear Ward's amendment actually would grant a rural priority, but the word ''rural'' does appear in it, which Botelho takes as a promising sign.

''It's a signal that an important Senate majority member who has not been here before is willing to take the lead to find a resolution,'' Botelho said. ''I'm guardedly optimistic.''

However, support has eroded in other quarters since the last attempt at solving the issue.

Two tribal organizations, Tanana Chiefs Conference and Association of Village Council Presidents, no longer support any state solution to subsistence, saying they are happy with federal management.

''We now feel much more comfortable with the federal system because it has been much more inclusive taking input from us,'' said Buddy Brown, president of Tanana Chiefs.

House Resources Committee member Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel, said the difficulty lawmakers have had resolving other issues may not bode well for subsistence.

Two attempts at reaching a session-ending agreement on budget and bond bills failed, leading to the current special session on those issues.

''We're standing on scorched earth,'' Kapsner said. ''How are we going to piece things together so we can solve subsistence?''

Lawmakers began taking testimony on the issue Thursday before the special session officially began, but no hearings were held Friday. The legislative schedule for the weekend was unclear.

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