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Rural Rights at Risk in Alaska

Kodiak: Residents defend their subsistence status to hunt and fish

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / December 13, 2006

Thousands of people in Kodiak and other Alaska communities might lose their right to subsistence hunting and fishing under federal law.

If that happens, many say, they'll lose a way of life.

About 40 rural Alaskans shared versions of that message with the Federal Subsistence Board at an unprecedented meeting that began in Anchorage Tuesday. The meeting continues today at the Egan Center.

The board, evaluating population and other community traits, is considering stripping some communities of their rural status for the first time.

Under Alaska's unique federal subsistence program, residents in "rural" communities have a priority over other users for fish and wildlife on federal lands. Many Alaska communities -- especially in off-road areas -- were first granted rural status in 1990.

The board has a responsibility to preserve the cultural heritage of hunting, fishing and gathering berries in Kodiak, said resident Geraldine Watson.

More than 12,000 residents in that island city and nearby communities face shortened hunting seasons and less fishing time if the board accepts the change.

"To vote us urban is cultural, economic and social genocide to the Alutiiq people and our way of life which we have lived for thousands of years," she said, reading a statement written by her husband, Gary Watson.

"I don't want my kids to think subsistence is McDonald's or Pizza Hut," said Tommy Johnson Jr., 26.

If the board accepts the proposals, residents would still have subsistence rights under state law, as Alaskans do, said board member Niles Cesar.

But they'd lose their priority and would compete for fish and wildlife with all the state's residents.

Other areas that might lose their rural status are:

* In Mat-Su: Point MacKenzie.

* On the Kenai Peninsula: Sterling and the North Fork Road area and Fritz Creek East near Homer (not including Voznesenka).

* In Southeast: communities connected to Ketchikan by road, except the village of Saxman, as well as nearby Pennock Island and part of Gravina Island.

* On the North Slope: the industrial enclave of Prudhoe Bay.

Congress created the subsistence law in Alaska to protect hunting and fishing in rural areas well into the future. The six-member board is required under federal law to evaluate communities every 10 years, relying on U.S. Census and other information.

Some of that information wasn't available until this year, said Maureen Clark, spokeswoman for the Office of Subsistence Management. The evaluation also includes an extensive public process, she said.

Deciding what makes a community rural is a controversial question. Size is the primary trait, but other factors include the community's economic diversity, importance of hunting and fishing, and social and economic ties to nearby communities.

Where federal subsistence law applies, it's passionately defended. The board has received close to 600 comments on the proposed changes, nearly all of them favoring rural status.

Communities that lose their rural status won't see any changes for five years.

The changes on Kodiak Island would include the city of Kodiak and some nearby communities connected by road to the city. Other communities linked by road but more isolated, such as Chiniak, would retain their rural status.

Areas that aren't rural would see deer and elk seasons shorten by a month or more. A program that allows hunters to bag deer for others, such as ailing family members, would disappear.

Salmon fishing would be limited to 15-hour days instead of around the clock. Gillnets would have to be pulled at 6 p.m.

Kodiak should remain rural, residents said. Its population has changed little since 1990. High fuel prices have made the island seem even more remote, making traveling and shipping more expensive. That's boosted the costs of cereal, milk and other food at stores, making subsistence even more important in recent years, residents said.

"It is every bit as rural as it was in 1990, when the board made this decision," said Thomas Schwantes, who lives in Bells Flats, a community near Kodiak proposed for urban status.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com.

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