May 21: Voice of the Times on a rural subsistence designation for the Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2000

When the federal Subsistence Board decreed the entire Kenai Peninsula ''rural'' for subsistence purposes, it inadvertently may have taken the first step toward resolving Alaska's painful subsistence dilemma.

How the entire Peninsula, which contains quickly growing urban areas such as Homer, Soldotna, Seward and Kenai, could be classified as rural is anybody's guess.

That cockeyed ruling, requested by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, has caused outright confusion. What does it mean for the Kenai River? Will fishing on the lower river, which cuts through state land, be curtailed to ensure federal subsistence catches upriver? Who will be able to hunt, and where? What about the fishing industry? All of these questions, and many more, remain unanswered.

The board -- composed of regional directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of land management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Forest Service -- says its decision will not immediately change the way Alaskans hunt and fish on the Kenai Peninsula. It says the ruling only determines subsistence eligibility.

But change is coming -- perhaps as early as next year.

Meanwhile, at least three proposals from the Ninilchik area, all consolidated as Proposal 13, seek to take advantage of the ruling. The proposal would make the Peninsula's Dolly Varden, rainbow trout, king, red and silver salmon along with its shellfish, one huge, unregulated subsistence fishery next year. The board is expected to decide on Proposal 13 in December, along with at least 39 others from across the state.

We are at this point because in frustrating, bruising debates in Legislature after Legislature, no progress has been made toward resolving the thorny issue. The federal government took over subsistence hunting regulation on federal land in Alaska and then, last year, it assumed control of subsistence fishing in federal waters.

Despite that, the state is no closer to resolving the issue.

Proponents say changing the Alaska Constitution to ensure a rural subsistence preference would bring Alaska into compliance with federal law requiring the priority and would return fish and wildlife management to the state.

Opponents say such an amendment would only create two classes of Alaskans and, they say, even if the change were adopted, Alaska still would be required to enforce the federal subsistence priority.

Given the bitter history of the debate, it is unlikely either side will budge despite the recent goofy rural designation for the entire Peninsula.

But the designation may trigger a lawsuit and the matter finally will be settled in the highest court in the land -- as it should have been years ago. --

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