Wolf Song of Alaska News

Local Panels Vital to Subsistence Users

Compass / Anchorage Daily News / January 16, 2007

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was signed into law 27 years ago. Despite the fact that the law has been around for a while now, misunderstandings remain, particularly concerning its subsistence provisions.

As the Federal Subsistence Board begins the process of implementing ANILCA's rural subsistence priority on federal waters of the Kenai Peninsula, it's important to keep in mind that the board's first priority under ANILCA is the conservation of fish and wildlife. We must ensure that subsistence activities do not jeopardize fish and wildlife stocks.

With that understanding, it's also good to remember why the subsistence provisions were included in ANILCA. Subsistence was an issue for the federal government when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Congress addressed Native land claims that precluded construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline with the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. While ANCSA didn't explicitly protect subsistence practices, the congressional report issued with the new law expressed the expectation that the secretary of the Interior and the state of Alaska would protect the subsistence needs of Alaska Natives.

In response to increasing competition for Alaska's fish and wildlife resources, the federal government included specific protections for subsistence when it passed ANILCA in 1980. But ANILCA did not include a Native subsistence priority. As a compromise with the state, the subsistence priority was granted to rural Alaskans, both Native and non-Native.

This federal subsistence priority applies only on federal public lands and waters. On the Kenai Peninsula, this means lands and waters within and adjacent to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest.

This rural priority does not mean that those living in nonrural areas cannot hunt and fish on federal lands and waters. They can continue to do so under state of Alaska regulations.

It's helpful to keep in mind that the number of fish harvested under subsistence regulations is relatively small. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the subsistence food harvest in rural Alaska represents only about 2 percent of the fish and game harvested statewide.

Managing a program built on compromise is not easy. But the courts have been clear about what the law requires of the federal government. And ANILCA has provided us with some very good tools.

One of the great strengths of the federal subsistence program is the system of 10 regional advisory councils that advise the Federal Subsistence Board on subsistence fishing and hunting regulations. These councils are made up of local people who are knowledgeable about the uses of fish and wildlife in their region. They provide the on-the-ground experience that the board needs so that it can protect and provide the opportunity for subsistence, while conserving healthy fish and wildlife populations.

The law gives great weight to the recommendations of these councils. In fact, ANILCA says the board must accept the recommendation of a regional advisory council on fishing and hunting regulations unless the recommendation is not supported by substantial evidence, violates recognized principles of fish and wildlife conservation, or would be detrimental to the satisfaction of subsistence needs.

As the Southcentral Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council begins consideration of subsistence fishery proposals for the Kenai Peninsula, its members will be seeking input from subsistence users and from commercial and sport-fishing groups. I applaud the council for taking this approach.

Throughout my years of participation in the management of fish and wildlife, I've always been impressed with the ability of Alaskans to put aside ideological differences, find common ground, and work toward solutions to difficult issues. I'm confident that our instincts for fairness and practicality will continue to serve us well.

Mike Fleagle is chair of the Federal Subsistence Board and is a former chair of the Alaska Board of Game.

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