The toughest assignment in Alaska politics this week belongs to Judge Thomas Stewart and former state Rep. Brian Rogers. They'll be directing traffic at the Governor's Subsistence Leadership Summit on Wednesday and Thursday, trying to find common ground on questions that have bedeviled governors and legislators for 12 years.
Judge Stewart will chair the summit and Mr. Rogers will facilitate the discussion. Their strategy, at least at the outset, is to get participants to imagine a workable subsistence solution in place in the year 2006 -- and to envision the process that got us there. Then, perhaps, something like that process can be mapped out at the summit.
Federal law requires a rural subsistence preference on federal land. The state constitution does not permit it on state land. To unify management of Alaska's fish and game resources under state control, the laws must be reconciled on terms acceptable to Alaskans, especially Alaska Natives. Looming behind the conflict are principles of equality before the law, state and federal relationships with indigenous peoples, protection of subsistence ways of life, and integrity of Alaska Native cultures and communities. Beyond all the legalisms, money, wrangling and definitions there is essentially a question of justice.
Because important principles conflict, the solution is a matter of priorities. In calling the summit, Gov. Tony Knowles has set his priorities straight: 1) protect subsistence, 2) regain state control, and 3) reconcile Alaskans. Those priorities imply a state constitutional amendment -- the solution a solid majority of Alaskans, in polls, have said they would favor.
It's the right solution, the just solution, and long overdue. The question is how to get there -- how to get the required two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Alaska Legislature to forward this choice to voters.
A grand debate rages in Alaska political circles as to whether the summit is a fruitful idea or just political cover for Gov. Tony Knowles, who faces a no-win choice on whether to appeal the Katie John subsistence lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. The stakes go quite a bit beyond Gov. Knowles' bona fides and political prospects, and that's why 40 Alaskans are taking two days out of their summer to grapple with the questions. But ultimately only results will settle the debate: The summit is a good idea if it works -- if a broad group of Alaska leaders develops conviction, consensus and courage to resolve the issue, and to bring along legislative votes in the process.
The summit is interesting because it moves the discussion beyond legislative circles to business, civic, Native, religious and outdoors leaders. Senate President Rick Halford and House Speaker Brian Porter are invited as a bridge to their colleagues -- and their counsel would be invaluable -- but the summit essentially casts a wide net to give a few more legislators good reasons to advance an amendment to Alaska voters.
And in that, it's worth imagining a few of the good things that could happen by the year 2006 if the solution is found soon: Alaskans would gain whatever unity there is in solving one of our biggest problems ourselves. Alaska Native people would have heard from other Alaskans a profound message of respect for their fundamental needs and concerns. State control would be returned to fish and game management. The radicals and zealots on all sides would be undercut; the moderates and peacemakers would be strengthened. The stalemate and aggravation of the past 12 years' political failure around subsistence could be replaced by a story of success. The promise of statehood could be strengthened and made real.
All of that's got to stand for something in the weeks and months ahead. What's required to get there is an act of political and moral imagination by the attendees at the Subsistence Leadership Summit, the members of the Alaska Legislature and, ultimately, the people of Alaska. -
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