Subsistence Hunters Lose in Court
Residents of areas near urban centers wanted
a state exemption
Tom Kizzia / Anchorage Daily News / January 17, 2004
The Alaska Supreme Court strengthened the state's ability to make broad decisions
about closing areas to subsistence hunting in a decision handed down Friday.
The court overturned a lower court ruling that could have granted priority subsistence
opportunities to residents of Ninilchik, Eklutna and Knik. State regulators had
declared the villages ineligible when they declared most of the Cook Inlet region
a "non-subsistence area."
Friday's decision only affects the state's subsistence program.
Subsistence hunters have a priority on state land under state law, just as they
do on federal land under federal law. But under state law, every resident may
qualify for subsistence, not just rural residents. This can create a crunch on
state and private lands near cities.
In 1992, the state closed the Anchorage region, among others, to subsistence.
Tribal governments for the three villages appealed in court, first attacking
the constitutionality of "non-subsistence" areas and then saying they'd been
unfairly lumped in with Anchorage.
The case volleyed through the court system for a decade. In 2000, the villages
won a decision under Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner. But his decision was
overturned Friday, bringing the long case apparently to an end.
The Supreme Court said the joint state boards of fish and game had acted reasonably
when they created the non-subsistence area including the three villages. State
law sets out a list of socioeconomic criteria for determining such areas, weighing
the relative importance of subsistence in those more urbanized regions.
Also losing in the case was the Kenaitze Indian Tribe of Kenai, which had intervened
to seek subsistence rights.
The decision will have no immediate practical effect, because people in those
communities had been barred from local subsistence hunting pending resolution
of the case, said Goriune Dudukgian, an Alaska Legal Services lawyer who represented
Knik and Eklutna.
"Most of the time it's pretty clear if an area is subsistence or non-subsistence," Dudukgian
said Friday. "Nobody's arguing there should be subsistence fish wheels in Ship
Creek. But on the margins, in places close to urban areas, that's where the problem
Federal land managers are now undergoing their own review of how to determine
if an area is "rural" and qualifies for subsistence priority under federal law.
Some of the same issues, and the same villages, enter the debate on the federal
side. Most subsistence fishing issues fall under federal jurisdiction.
The state's non-subsistence areas cover the Anchorage-Kenai-Mat-Su region and
zones around Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan and Valdez.
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
in Homer at 1-907-235-4244
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