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Survey finds Alaskans want vote on rural subsistence priority

Posted: Monday, September 17, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Three out of four Alaskans polled earlier this month said they want the chance to vote on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a rural subsistence priority. Half said they would vote in favor of such an amendment.

The statewide poll of 272 voters, commissioned by Cook Inlet Region Inc. and conducted by Ivan Moore Research, is the latest snapshot of how Alaskans feel about the subsistence debate.

The survey found that 76 percent favor putting an amendment on the ballot, with 52 percent saying they would vote for it. The survey has a margin of error of 6 percentage points, Moore said.

A spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles said the results should come as no surprise.

''That's consistent with other polls taken on this subject for years,'' said Knowles' press secretary, Bob King.

Opponents of a subsistence amendment, however, said the survey isn't a true reflection because questioners didn't give enough details for people to make an informed response.

Moore's researchers telephoned residents across the state from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, within days of Knowles' announcement that he would not appeal the Katie John subsistence decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The survey came about two weeks after members of Knowles' Subsistence Leadership Summit recommended that the Legislature send to voters by 2002 a constitutional amendment creating a rural subsistence priority.

Some summit members were scheduled to meet last week to begin crafting an amendment, but travel restrictions resulting from the terrorist attacks on the East Coast prompted the group to postpone the session until Sept. 24, King said.

The poll shows support for an amendment slipping from levels recorded in a 1998 survey by pollster Dave Dittman. Dittman, who conducted that poll at his own expense, found 85 percent of Alaskans favored putting a subsistence amendment on the ballot, with 63 percent saying they would vote for it.

Federal law grants a priority for rural residents who subsistence hunt or fish. But the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a rural preference violates the state constitution's guarantee of equal access to the state's resources.

John, an Athabascan elder, sued in 1990 to get the federal government to enforce the federal rural subsistence priority. A federal judge ruled in her favor, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the ruling. As a result, federal agencies have taken over management of subsistence hunting and fishing on the roughly two-thirds of Alaska that is federally owned.

Knowles, Native groups and other interests have pushed to change the constitution to make it consistent with federal law. That would allow the state to regain management of subsistence hunting and fishing.

But sportsmen's groups, some state legislators and other people oppose the change, arguing a rural priority discriminates against urban residents.

Pollsters in the two newer Moore surveys asked: ''If a subsistence question is put on the ballot in the general election next year that asks Do you favor or oppose amending the Alaska State Constitution to provide for a rural priority in the taking of fish and game for subsistence use in Alaska,' would you vote in favor or opposed?''

The second question asked: ''Do you favor or oppose such a question being put on the November general election ballot in 2002?''

Jesse Vanderzanden, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, said he was skeptical of the poll results because the questions lacked context.

''The general population needs to know what a rural priority means and how that would translate into how fish and game would be managed in the state,'' he said. ''The questions don't give background or how it would be implemented.''

Without more information, ''I don't think you can get an accurate answer,'' he said.



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