Subsistence divide emerges in first day of subsistence summit

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Paul John and Rob Holt lead very different lives, but ones that are equally intertwined with the Alaskan wild.

As a professional hunter and guide, Holt relies on a good hunt for money. John, a Yupik elder from Nelson Island, has relied on it as a link between his survival and his aboriginal traditions.

But both believe that their livelihoods are under attack.

''Our creator has designed us to live the way we do. When he made that plan he said that we are not to misuse, mishandle or play with this way of living. But today, that is not the way anymore.''

John, 72, spoke through an interpreter Wednesday as a member of Gov. Tony Knowles Subsistence Leadership Summit. The group is holding two days of meetings in Anchorage this week, searching for a long-term approach to the debate over subsistence in Alaska.

John said government regulations over subsistence hunting and fishing have caused his people to go hungry in the past. Holt fears subsistence restrictions affecting his industry will mean lean times for even more.

Knowles appointed the members of the summit to spend two days to find a way to preserve the rural subsistence life, regain state management of fish and game and to bridge the divide between urban and rural interests in the debate.

While no conclusions emerged from the first meeting, the divide between those who support a rural preference and the few on the panel who support equal access to fish and game was apparent.

That divide has split state and federal courts, the legislature and stymied three governors who have sought a way to retain state control of all subsistence hunting and fishing.

''This is the most insoluble issue in Alaska politics,'' said Clive Thomas, political science professor at University of Alaska Southeast.

Thomas compared the issue to that of abortion, with two sides deeply entrenched in their beliefs about the right course of action. He said the subsistence debate appears to lack any room for compromise for the two sides.

The federal government regulates subsistence on federal land -- which represent two thirds of the state -- sine the state came out of compliance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The act granted a preference for hunting and fishing to rural residents. It was a Congressional compromise intended to grant Natives the right to follow their traditional existence after they surrendered aboriginal rights under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

But the state Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that granting a rural preference violates the state constitution.

Since then, several attempts by the legislature to pass a state constitutional amendment to grant a rural preference and comply with ANILCA have failed.

''It is basically unfinished between the federal government and the Native people,'' said Holt.

Native representatives of the group argued that the state should honor the deal between the federal government and Natives.

Only about 20 percent of Alaska's 626,000 residents live in rural areas. But Natives represent 51 percent of the about 123,000 rural residents.

Native groups argue that infringement on their subsistence practices is an attack on their heritage. But some critics of a rural priority argue that even those in urban areas rely on subsistence hunting and fishing to survive.

While the panel works, Knowles has until Oct. 4 to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the case of Katie John, an Athabascan elder who sued to be allowed to fish along the Copper River. That case expanded federal control of subsistence.

She is not related to Paul John.

But Knowles said his decision on that case will not solve the subsistence dilemma that has stymied the state for at least 12 years.

''This is a social issue that Alaskans resolve, it is not going to be resolved in the courts,'' he told The Associated Press. ''We have to in some way reach out, have a meaningful dialogue, understand the subsistence way of life.''

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