Alaska lawmaker proposes constitutional amendment to unify subsistence management under the state

Mar. 27—An Alaska lawmaker is pursuing a state constitutional amendment in hopes of resolving a decades-old conflict between state and federal management over subsistence hunting and fishing.

The measure from Rep. Thomas Baker of Kotzebue, a Republican appointed to his seat by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in November, could revive an issue that died down around 25 years ago.

The proposed amendment seeks to unify subsistence management under a single-state system. If approved, it would set a foundation to amend the Alaska Constitution to provide a subsistence priority for rural residents in times of low yield, Baker said.

The measure proposes changing the Alaska Constitution to overcome a 1989 state Supreme Court decision that threw state and federal law into conflict.

The court ruled that the state cannot single out rural residents for a subsistence priority, since the constitution guarantees all Alaskans equal access to fish and wildlife. Federal law, on the other hand, allows a subsistence priority for rural residents, predominantly Alaska Natives.

Skeptics of Baker's measure say it appeared without warning and could threaten the valuable federal protection that many Alaska Natives strongly support. They say the measure will need broad public input to advance, including from Native people who don't always trust the state's intentions over subsistence.

The proposal comes as the state's largest Native organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives, has joined the side of the federal government in its lawsuit against the state in a dispute involving management of collapsed salmon stocks on the Kuskokwim River.

Supporters argue the state can provide the best subsistence regime across Alaska. They say the measure could end the patchwork of different rules that apply to hunters and fishers as they cross state and federal boundaries in pursuit of animals.

Baker said he believes his proposal may require some tweaks to the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that established the federal government's rural priority.

An official with Baker's office on Wednesday, however, said he does not foresee that any changes will need to be made to the federal law.

"This brings us in line with ANILCA," Steve St. Clair, staff for Baker, said about the proposed amendment. He added that it would eliminate dual management of Alaska lands.

The proposed amendment says the Legislature "may provide a preference" to residents "for subsistence use based on customary and traditional use, direct dependence, the availability of alternative resources, place of residence, or proximity to the resource."

"When the harvestable surplus of a replenishable resource is insufficient to provide for all beneficial uses, other beneficial uses shall be limited to protect subsistence uses of the resource," it says.

Baker, who is Alaska Native, said he introduced the resolution based on his experience subsistence hunting and fishing in Northwest Alaska where he lives. Federal and state managers set different rules on adjoining lands that hunters can cross unknowingly, setting them up for potential violations, he said.

He said his measure is designed to start a conversation.

It isn't expected to pass this legislative session and will need much more public input, he said. He'd like to at least see it pass the House this session, so the Senate can begin considering it.

Heather Kendall-Miller, an Alaska Native attorney who has long worked on subsistence issues, said the proposed amendment is a giant issue that so far has received little attention.

The measure's language says the state "may" provide a preference, so it does not mandate a rural subsistence priority, she said. The Native community in the late 1990s rejected a similar proposal during the administration of former Gov. Tony Knowles, she said.

The only way an amendment will work is if the state abides by the terms of the 1980 federal law that established the federal priority, she said.

"History has proven time and time again that the state will not protect subsistence," she said. "At this point in time, we want our stringent federal protections."

Alaska Native leaders say the Dunleavy administration's fight with the federal government on the Kuskokwim River threatens the federal protection for subsistence fishing.

Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor, said Dunleavy did not ask Baker to introduce the measure.

The governor has no position on it, Turner said.

"It's Rep. Baker's" resolution, he said.

Baker said he has discussed the measure with Dunleavy.

"He wished me luck and encouraged me to make sure that" people are aware and state and federal subsistence managers are involved, Baker said.

The measure, presented to the House in February, has been the subject of three hearings this month in the House Resources Committee with invited speakers.

Alaska Department of Fish and Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang has spoken to the committee at hearings to argue for a single management system. He said it could resolve multiple conflicts between state and federal managers, including on the Kuskokwim River.

The federal government has created a regulatory structure that usurps state authority, he said. It's led to increased conflict over fish and wildlife management, he said.

He said the rural priority prevents Alaska Natives who moved to urban areas from returning to their village to participate in federal harvests.

John Sturgeon, who heads the Alaska chapter of Safari Club International, won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court that's key to the state's argument over federal subsistence authority in the Kuskokwim River.

Sturgeon also spoke at one of the committee hearings in support of unified state management. He said the state government has more flexibility in taking steps to manage game than the federal government, such as using predator control to provide more caribou.

The proposed amendment faces a high hurdle.

It would require at least two-thirds approval from both chambers before Alaska voters would make a final call.

Rosita Worl, a member of the AFN subsistence committee, told the House committee last week that a lot has changed since the dual management system was created.

"We have citizens who grew up living with dual management and have grown accustomed to these systems," she said. "We have tribal members who now favor working through the federal subsistence boards."

She said there's a growing effort to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, science and language into subsistence management decisions.

AFN president Julie Kitka told the committee last week that efforts to amend the Alaska Constitution to solve the conflict over subsistence died multiple times in the 1990s.

Alaska Native leaders worked to find a solution for about a decade before giving up when it seemed the Legislature did not want an amendment, she said.

The issue hasn't been on the table since about 2000, Kitka said.

This latest measure was introduced "out of the blue," she said.

It was not discussed at the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention in October, where subsistence dominated discussions, she told the House committee.

The issue is central to Alaska Natives, she said. But the proposed constitutional amendment makes no mention of Native people or their unique history, she said.

"That really comes across as offensive, I'm being really honest with you," she said.

"But it also ignores that Alaska Natives have a special federal trust responsibility with the federal government," referring to the U.S. obligation to protect Native legal rights and resources.

Kitka suggested that lawmakers initiate a broad, fact-finding effort to hear from a variety of people and learn more about the complex topic of subsistence.

If the state pursues a unified management system, it should try to create the best system of its kind in the world, she said.

It could take into account struggling fish and wildlife populations in Alaska, plus climate change, Indigenous knowledge, science, and other factors, she said.

"That's the burning issues that are on people's mind right now," she said.

"It is not helping the state get a unified system. It's, 'What are we going to do when we don't get fish in the spring or the summer?'"