A political battle has erupted in Alaska over racial preference, but neither college admissions nor jobs are the issue. It’s about moose.
At the center of the dispute is Karen Linnell, who Gov. Bill Walker appointed to the state’s wildlife-managing Alaska Board of Game. Linnell says she is only trying to help grow more moose and simplify permitting for residents of the rural, Copper River valley in her day job with the Copper River-Ahtna Inter-Tribal Resource Conservation District.
The Alaska Outdoor Council, a coalition of primarily urban fishermen and hunters from across Alaska, doesn’t see it quite the same way. The AOC has urged the Alaska Legislature to block confirmation of Linnell’s appointment to the Game Board.
“Three weeks after being appointed to the Board of Game, Ms. Linnell signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior to form a partnership between DOI and the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission to provide a quota of moose for Alaska native villages in the Ahtna region,” the AOC charged.
“By signing a Memorandum of Agreement with the DOI Ms. Linnell created an intractable conflict of interest. On one hand, she is a signatory to an agreement that allocates a public resource to a specific group, but on the other hand, as a member of the board of game she is bound by the Alaska State Constitution to allocate game equally to all Alaskans. (Article VIII, Section 3 Common Use)”
Linnell, in a telephone interview, took issue with the AOC claim. She said the agreement doesn’t really create a racial quota for tribes in the Ahtna region, but in the tangled maze of Alaska hunting and fishing regulations – with both the state and federal government setting seasons and bag limits and rural residents given special hunting privileges – things get incredibly complicated.
“Ahtna’s problems arise from the two central facts,” the corporation noted in its spring 2015 newsletter. “First, Alaska’s major population centers, and the roads that connect these centers, surround Ahtna’s traditional hunting area. The moose and caribou populations upon which Ahtna depends are highly desirable and accessible to these large urban populations.
‘The competition is fierce and the hunting grounds are crowded. Urban hunting groups apply constant pressure to state institutions to optimize their sport use and minimize protection for Ahtna’s C&T (customary and traditional) hunting practices. Federal law and regulations provide minimal protection due to the small amount of accessible federal lands within Ahtna’s traditional hunting territory.”
Ahtna would like race-based quotas for both moose and caribou, but getting them is not easy. Both the state and federal constitutions stand in the way of Alaska Natives who decades back abandoned the idea of reservations – independent, self-governing Indian nations within the borders of the U.S. – in favor of a grand, social experiment called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
To settle Native claims to all of Alaska, and thus clear the way for construction of the TransAlaska Pipeline System, the U.S. government at the start of the ’70s cut a deal with Native leaders to pay them almost $1 billion and provide clear title to 44 million acres of land in exchange for their dropping litigation claiming ownership of the entire state.
An attempt to avoid creating Alaska versions of the poverty plagued reservations of the Lower 48, the Claims Act was praised by almost everyone at the time. The “Tundra Times,” a Native-owned newspaper heralded it as “the beginning of a great era for the Native people of Alaska.”
“ANCSA established a framework for corporations to provide for the economic, education, social and cultural well-being of current and future generations of shareholders,” notes Anchorage-based Cook Inlet Region Inc., (CIRI) one of the most successful of 12 regional corporations set up to manage the land selections and the money.
The corporations quickly went about selecting Alaska lands that appeared might have the greatest, future economic value. Traditional hunting and fishing areas were often low on the list of priorities, in part because nearly all of the land in Alaska was at the time public and open to anyone to hunt and fish, and in part because most of the state was unpopulated.
The 1970 census counted only 300,382 people – 9,000 of them identified as “Negro,” another 55,000 identified as “other races,” and the rest lumped as “white.” There was at that time no breakout of Natives.
About 79,000 Alaska Natives enrolled in corporations over the next few years, according to a history compiled by CIRI. Eventually, each was awarded 100 shares of restricted stock (it couldn’t be bought or sold) in their regional corporation.
That was then, and this is now:
Alaska’s population has more than doubled to a Census Bureau estimated 741,894 as of July 2016, and there are an estimated 111,000 Natives who call the state home.
Many of these people – Native or other – hunt, even more fish, and the allocation of hunting and fishing opportunities have only grown more complicated in the 49th state over the years.
Congress recognized the problems of future population growth in 1980 when it passed the landmark Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act creating 104 million acres of new national parks, preserves, monuments, wildlife refuges, wild rivers and designated wilderness areas in Alaska.
With many people in rural Alaska still heavily dependent on wild fish and wildlife for sustenance, the legislation granted them permission to hunt in parks and monuments closed to the general public, and it further created a rural “subsistence priority.”
Congress specifically avoided a Native priority so as to avoid creating the social strain of two, distinct, federally recognized classes of people in small, sometimes tiny, rural villages.
The law stipulated that “management policies on the public lands in Alaska are to cause the least possible adverse impact on subsistence-dependent rural people, and as far as possible, such people are to have the opportunity of continuing a subsistence life style; nonwasteful subsistence use of fish and wildlife and other renewable resources shall have priority over other consumptive use of such resources on the public lands in ; and Federal land-managing agencies are to cooperate with adjacent landowners and land managers in managing subsistence activities on the public lands and in protecting the continued viability of all valid renewable resources in Alaska.”
The law did not define “rural,” and there has been chaos almost ever since it was written.
Hoping to maintain management of fish and wildlife on federal lands everywhere in the 49th state, the state wrote its own rural-priority law mimicking the federal preference law. It was struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court, which held that it violated the “Common Use” provision of the state Constitution.
The law was rewritten and struck down again. Eventually the state gave up on trying to create a rural preference, instead opting for a state subsistence priority that scored family hunting and fishing histories, places of residence, income and other factors.
All Alaska hunters became subsistence hunters, but when wildlife was judged to be in short supply only those who scored highest in the complicated permitting system were granted the privilege to hunt.
A similar system existed for fisheries for a time, but commercial fishermen – worried that the subsistence priority could take a big bite out of their incomes – lobbied the state to create “non-subsistence” zones where subsistence is banned. Subsistence fisheries were, in turn, replaced by “personal-use fisheries” that looked exactly like the subsistence fisheries, except they lacked a harvest priority.
While all of this was going on, there was more litigation in the federal courts aimed at consolidating federal protection of subsistence in rural areas. The feds would eventually take over management of wildlife in rural areas and a 1994 federal court decision – a decision that remains at odds with the state Supreme Court ruling – extended federal authority to management of Alaska fisheries, although near shore salmon fisheries which harvest about 95 percent of all salmon caught in Alaska remain largely run by the state.
More than 35 years of these generally well-intentioned acts have done little but leave everyone feeling wronged.
Urban hunters and fishermen feel like second-class citizens, because they are. Rural Alaskan residents feel invaded by those from elsewhere, because they are.
The seasons in the Copper River area from which Linnell hails are now judged as much by the early summer fishing invasion and the late summer hunting invasion as by break-up, summer, freeze-up and winter. In the far north, the seasons come differently than elsewhere.
Meanwhile, what one sees of the goings on here depends largely on the vantage point from which one is looking.
“There’s no special treatment,” Linnell said. “We still have to fall in line with the federal regulations. It doesn’t mean they get moose.”
Both of the latter statements are true. Federal permit requirements, set by a system in which urban Alaskans have almost no say, are not going away. And the regulatory system doesn’t guarantee anyone moose or caribou flesh; that’s why it’s called hunting, not shopping.
But rural residents, both Ahtna tribal members and others in the Copper River valley, do get special treatment under the federal law. And the federal courts have found it justified. It’s why the feds took over authority and now jointly manage with the state.
“We’re already under a dual management system,” Linnell said. “Things the way they are are difficult and confusing. People say you about need a surveyor and a lawyer just to go hunting.
“If we could all work together maybe we could fix some of this….(but) people get real defensive.”
Nobody trusts anybody. Everybody seems to have a chip on their shoulder. Any suggestions for change inevitably bring out objections from somewhere.
The subject of this debate – moose – might be new, but the outline is the same as that for other American preference programs plagued by the reality that fairness is often a zero-sum game.
To make things more fair to one you almost inevitably risk making them less fair to another.