Knowles names participants to subsistence summit panel

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

JUNEAU -- Gov. Tony Knowles named more than three dozen business, political, religious and Native leaders to a panel that will seek a long-term solution to the state's subsistence dilemma.

Knowles said while it does its work, he alone will decide whether to appeal the Katie John subsistence lawsuit which expanded federal control over subsistence hunting and fishing.

''The summit is not about the Katie John case, but it certainly is about Katie John,'' Knowles said, saying she symbolizes rural residents who want to preserve their way of life. John is an Athabascan elder who won a lawsuit in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after being denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River.

Federal officials now regulate subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land -- which makes up two-thirds of Alaska -- granting a priority to rural residents.

That happened after the state Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a rural preference granted in the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was unconstitutional.

The issue has pitted urban residents against rural, conservatives against Native rights groups and lawmakers against each other.

Alaska lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a constitutional amendment to create a rural preference for subsistence hunting. Opponents of such an amendment argued the rural priority discriminates against urban Alaskans who want to hunt and fish for food.

''The urban and rural divide we have today I think is stronger than it has ever been,'' Knowles said. ''That is troubling. I think it has long-term consequences socially and economically.''

The goal of the panel will be to preserve the rural subsistence life, regain state management of fish and game and to bridge the divide between the various sides, Knowles said.

''The purpose of the summit is simple, but I know achieving it will be anything but: a long term solution to Alaska's subsistence stand-off,'' Knowles said.

Former Superior Court Judge Tom Stewart will chair the 40-member panel when it meets at the Egan Convention and Visitors Center in Anchorage on Aug. 15-16.

Knowles said he hopes the panel's findings will also pressure state senators who voted against a 1999 constitutional amendment to grant a rural preference.

''I think the moral authority that this group can bring to the issue will certainly be a new, and hopefully, powerful message to elected leaders,'' Knowles said.

Senate President Rick Halford and House Speaker Brian Porter have been asked to serve on the panel. Neither have committed to do so, Knowles said. Halford and Porter could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

But Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, who opposes granting a rural priority over urban residents, said the Legislature is too deeply entrenched.

''Basically we're down to the people that will stick to their guns on this thing,'' Kelly said.

Kelly criticized the makeup of the group, saying it favors those who support a rural priority.

Among the members are Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and Carl Marrs, president of the Cook Inlet Region Inc.

Subsistence is a particularly important issue for Natives -- who constitute about 51 percent of the rural population -- who have argued their traditional ways of life are compromised by losing a subsistence preference.

Knowles has until Oct. 4 to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a lower court's ruling favoring the Katie John suit. Native groups have said they want Knowles to drop the appeal, while conservative lawmakers have said they want him to pursue the case.

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