ANCHORAGE -- Kenaitze Indian Tribe members were visibly upset Thursday when the Federal Subsistence Board voted 4-2 to rescind a decision that the entire Kenai Peninsula is rural and eligible for federal subsistence.
"I'm very disappointed," said Rosalie Tepp, tribal chair. "We'll probably go to court. We aren't going to give up. The Kenaitze tribe has never given up."
James Showalter, Kenaitze vice chair, observed that after hearing extensive public testimony, several board members read from prepared statements to justify their votes. They obviously had made their decisions before the public testimony, he said.
"How do I know? They had it all written down and read it off," he said. "That isn't right. They're sitting like puppets listening to everybody when they've already made their decision. Why even have a meeting?"
The board's action Thursday effectively reinstates its 1990 determination that on the Kenai Peninsula, only the communities of Ninilchik, Cooper Landing, Hope, Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek are rural and eligible for federal subsistence.
It rescinds a May 2000 determination, made in response to a petition from the Kenaitze tribe, that even the peninsula's major population centers are rural for purposes of federal subsistence. The board agreed to reconsider its May 2000 finding after requests from Safari Club International, its Alaska and Kenai Peninsula chapters, The Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Council and the state's Cooper Landing Fish and Game Advisory Council.
Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said his group has long opposed a rural determination for the whole peninsula.
"With the diversified economy and the variety of ways you can get sustenance, it has more in common with urban areas," he said.
In addition, peninsula fish and game are fully allocated between existing sport, commercial, personal-use and subsistence users, he said.
"No one wants their opportunity to be reduced," he said, and opening subsistence to the peninsula's entire population of 50,000 people would upset the balance.
"We're worried that the first to be hurt will be the resource itself," he said.
Huber said the Russian River, where sockeye salmon support the state's most popular sport fishery, is a good example of what the Kenai Peninsula rural determination could bring. It is under federal jurisdiction, he said, and the board almost certainly would find it has supported customary and traditional use.
"You may see the sport fishery go away if a subsistence fishery is created with 50,000 or 60,000 qualified users," he said.
That could significantly damage the peninsula economy, he said, and an injured economy would create more demand for subsistence and greater pressure on the resource.
Natives said sport hunting and fishing rules are not enough to accommodate cultural needs.
Susan Wells of the Kenai Natives Association said she is a teacher, commercial fisher and subsistence hunter and gatherer, but she must buy a state sport license before she can pick clams on the beach, take salmon or harvest moose.
"I'm not a sport fishermen or hunter," she said.
She crosses out the word "sport" on her license and pencils in the word "subsistence" instead.
"The state has restricted my ability to hunt and fish. Then I become a statistic to justify allocations to sport and personal use," she said. "I want to consume the wildlife, not recreate with it. My income or the distance I live from a grocery store has nothing to do with the subsistence lifestyle I've shared all my life."
Before determining whether communities are rural or nonrural, the board first lumps those with similar characteristics. Then, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, communities with fewer than 2,500 residents are presumed rural, and those with more than 7,000 residents are presumed nonrural. Communities with intermediate populations could be either and must be examined more closely.
By the 2000 census, the population of the Kenai-Soldotna area is 30,277 people, Tim Jennings, chief of coastal regions for the Office of Subsistence Management, told the board. The population of the greater Homer area is 7,825, and that of the Seward area is 3,204.
Jim Caplan, who represents the U.S. Forest Service on the broad, said the greater Kenai, Homer and Seward areas are socially and economically integrated, and lumping the communities in each of those areas makes sense.
Despite the low population density of the peninsula as a whole, the density in each of those three population centers is comparable to the density in urban areas such as Anchorage, he said. Likewise, use of fish and wildlife in the peninsula's population centers compares more with use in urban areas than with use in rural areas.
Fran Cherry, who represents the Bureau of Land Management on the board, said the Kenaitzes have a legitimate interest in seeing their traditions protected. He asked the board to join him in a letter asking the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to continue and strengthen the present Kenaitze educational fishery and cultural harvest opportunities.
"The legitimate needs of the Kenaitzes can be better accommodated through ... efforts of this sort," he said.
However, Allan Baldwin of the Kenaitze tribal council said the educational fishery never was meant to replace subsistence.
"The educational fishery as designed was a means to educate our young people, so that one day, they cold do their subsistence fishing," he said. "It was designed to be a stepping stone to a subsistence fishery."
Tepp said there are more than 1,000 members of the Kenaitze tribe, and the present educational fishery is completely inadequate.
"We're allowed 8,000 fish," she said. "Divide that into 1,000. That's eight fish per person. That's ridiculous."
Personal-use fishers are allowed 25 fish per head of household plus 10 fish for each additional family member, she noted.
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