Governor says even ruling in state's favor wouldn't eliminate fed control

Knowles won't appeal Katie John subsistence case

Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- Gov. Tony Knowles announced Monday he wouldn't appeal the Katie John subsistence case to the U.S. Supreme Court, ending a 10-year legal fight that has pitted Alaska Natives against states-rights advocates.

''We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alas-kans,'' Knowles said at a news conference Monday in Anchorage.

The case established that the federal government has authority on most waters in Alaska to ensure subsistence rights for rural residents. The ruling greatly expanded the geographic scope of the federal government's authority in Alaska.

However, Knowles said that even a ruling in the state's favor would not have eliminated federal control of subsistence hunting and fishing.

''Even winning that case would have returned only a small portion of federal fish and game management to state hands,'' Knowles said.

The long-running subsistence feud stems from a conflict be-tween state and federal laws.

A 1980 federal law requires that rural Alaskans be given a priority to the state's fish and game. The Alaska constitution guarantees all Alaskans equal access to the state's resources.

Katie John, the Athabaskan elder who filed the landmark lawsuit after being denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River, was recovering from a bout of the flu, but was said to be happy with the news. The governor phoned her at her home in Mentasta to tell her of his decision.

''She was ecstatic. I also think she was relieved,'' said Kathryn Martin, her granddaughter. ''I see it as a victory for my grandma. She fought this case to provide for her family.''

The Alaska Federation of Natives also was pleased with the governor's decision.

''We think it's a step in the right direction,'' said Nelson Angapak, executive vice president of AFN. ''The governor must take steps to protect the subsistence rights of people living in Alaska, both Native and non-Native.''

Knowles also said he would convene a meeting of Native, civic, business and religious leaders to draw up a constitutional amendment to bring Alaska's subsistence law into compliance with federal law.

Knowles' decision to drop the Katie John case comes less than two weeks after he called a two-day summit of Alaska leaders to find a long-term solution to the subsistence stalemate. The participants called on the state's Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before all Alaska voters guaranteeing a rural subsistence priority.

Repeated attempts to get such a constitutional amendment through the Legislature have failed over the years.

Republican opponents argue such an amendment would discriminate against people who live in urban areas but depend on fish and game for food.

Rep. Brian Porter, R-Anchor-age, said Knowles' decision to drop the case doesn't bring the state any closer to resolving the issue. The Katie John case had implications beyond subsistence. A Supreme Court decision could have clarified issues involving state sovereignty, he said.

Knowles' decision marked a turnaround from his position less than a year and a half ago. At that time he said he planned to appeal the Katie John case to the Supreme Court.

''As Alaska's governor, I believe it is my clear responsibility, even in the face of a difficult political battle, to vigorously defend this important aspect of state sovereignty,'' Knowles wrote in a published commentary.

At his news conference Mon-day, Knowles said he has come to the conclusion it is not in the best interest of the state to continue the case, which has caused a rift between rural and urban Alas-kans.

''I cannot continue to oppose in court what I know in my heart to be right,'' he said.

Those who advocated appealing the case said the governor was obligated by his oath of office to defend the state constitution.

''I am saddened and disappointed that the governor was unable to keep his word to the people of Alaska,'' said state Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell.

''We're just going to have to look at where this unilateral decision of the governor takes us.''

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