When Gov. Tony Knowles decided to drop the state's appeal of the Katie John case, he also decided to press the battle for an amendment to the Alaska Constitution that would provide a rural subsistence preference.
Forty Alaska leaders from different walks of life tackled the problem with new energy at a Subsistence Leadership Summit in August. Now the governor has an 11-member panel chaired by Attorney General Bruce Botelho at work on an amendment draft and recommendations for legislation to implement it.
New energy is having a rough go against the old dispute, which only gets thornier with age.
Sunday, the Subsistence Drafting Group deadlocked over the issues of specifically including some urban residents as subsistence users and over whether to give Alaska Natives or tribes recognized subsistence rights in an amendment.
Unable to agree on those issues, the group did come up with a working draft of a constitutional amendment that goes further than any before in that it says:
''1. The policy of the State of Alaska is to recognize the subsistence tradition of the indigenous peoples of Alaska and to accord a priority to customary and traditional subsistence uses in the allocation of fish, game and other renewable resources.''
This is the right policy for Alaska.
To implement it fairly is a tougher task. Here's the rest of the working amendment:
''2. When it is necessary under the sustained yield principle to impose any restrictions on the taking of a fish, game, or other renewable resource, the customary and traditional subsistence uses of that resource by rural residents in the area in which those customary and traditional uses have occurred shall be accorded priority over all other consumptive uses of the resource. When a resource is not sufficient to satisfy all customary and traditional subsistence uses, priorities among subsistence users shall be based on customary and direct dependence on the resource as the mainstay of livelihood, proximity to the resource, and the availability of alternative resources.''
None of this is writ in stone. Even so, it's clear there's plenty to debate in just these words, with no guarantee the Legislature, particularly the Senate, will be any more receptive to this amendment than to any other.
So where does this leave us?
Let's remember the fundamental goal here, which is to provide a rural subsistence preference to permanently protect a way of life -- more than a lifestyle -- for Alaska Natives that simply cannot exist without subsistence rights. At the same time, all rural residents, who by and large are more dependent on fish and game for sustenance, will have preference in times of shortage over those not so dependent. This is common sense, decency and justice. The state should pursue justice as a matter of course, not just to comply with federal law. By doing what's right, Alaska will regain management of its fish and game.
The drafting group goes back to work in Juneau on Monday and Tuesday. Mr. Botelho said the governor wants its work done by the close of business Tuesday. That means one more chance to craft the right language so that an amendment will have a fighting chance in the state Senate.
The key player in the Senate is Senate President Rick Halford, who has opposed the rural subsistence preference in the past, but not a subsistence preference. Sen. Halford has not said what he'll do, but he has talked with Gov. Knowles. The administration's take on the political landscape hasn't changed: If Sen. Halford sees a subsistence amendment that satisfies him, he may lead enough of his colleagues to the two-thirds majority needed to put the amendment before Alaska voters.
To take on the subsistence issue is to walk into an alder thicket of state and federal law, Native rights and survival, some Natives' mistrust of the current Legislature, universal rights, fish and game management, state politics and the implacable bear of scarce resources versus rising demand. Nobody goes there for fun.
But the state's leaders -- and at this moment, particularly the draft group appointed by Gov. Knowles -- must brave the thicket and find the right way out. That's how they'll deserve to be called ''leaders.''
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