Managing Alaska


Moose hunter John Sturgeon, the man in the eye of the storm/John Sturgeon photo

The wolf-kill-loving Alaska Outdoor Council and the wolf-kill-hating National Parks and Conservation Association would appear to have found common ground in trying to stop a last-minute Congressional amendment to the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (ANILCA).

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska – the powerful chair of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources – has been lobbied by the administration of Gov. Bill Walker to attach a rider to the omnibus spending bill to amend ANILCA to specifically allow hovercraft in national parks in the 49th state.

But the idea has run into strong opposition from interest groups usually on opposite sides on Alaska land issues and may be dead on arrival. A spokeswoman for the Parks Association said this morning she doesn’t think the amendment is making it onto the spending bill.

Old fights

The hovercraft issue traces back to Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon who got chased off the Nation River in the remote Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve by National Park Service Rangers in 2007.

Sturgeon got mad and sued the federal agency.

Now about $1 million deep in litigation, Sturgeon has over the course of the past decade pushed his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

There he won a monumental victory only to lose. SCOTUS tossed his case back to the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals where Sturgeon lost again on different grounds. He is appealing once more to SCOTUS as he watches the legal bills pile up once more.

His attorney, Matthew Findley, went to Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, a Walker appointee, looking for a fix. They huddled privately with Julie Kitka, the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, to work out a possible Congressional resolution to  Sturgeon’s dispute.

With his 78th birthday approaching in August, Sturgeon is nearing the end of his day’s hunting moose – animals that weigh up to 2,000 pounds and are a chore for even young, fit men to butcher and pack out of the field.

The deal worked out by Findley behind closed doors would have eliminated federal oversight on “submerged lands, owned by the state, any Native corporation, or any private party, or to navigable waters flowing over such lands.”

That was a potentially big win for Sturgeon, along with the state and some Alaska Native corporations, which own potential mineral or oil and gas lands inside the 104 million acres of national parks and wildlife refuges in the 49th state.

The latter inholdings caused heartburn for conservationists who saw a potential problem suddenly a whole lot bigger than Sturgeon using a hovercraft in a remote part of Alaska where almost no one, with the possible exception of a couple other moose hunters might see it. Conservationists want federal oversight on state and private lands within national parks and refuges.

More problems

More open-minded as regards development than Outside conservation groups, the Outdoor Council was fine with the lands and waters plans, but had issues with another part of the proposed amendment dealing with subsistence.

It stipulated that “nothing in this section shall be interpreted to limit the (Interior) Secretary’s authority under Title VIII to protect and provide the opportunity for continued subsistence uses, and to implement the subsistence priority….”

The Council, which has been the most active organization in Alaska trying to help raise money to fund Sturgeon’s suit, wants the subsistence issue litigated. The way the system works now with state and federal managers of fish and wildlife tripping over each either is costly, inefficient and confusing to the public, said Arno.

“Are we ever going to get rid of this dual management?” he asked.

The Outdoor Council sees the courts as the only entity that answer that question. Arno said he feels for Sturgeon’s financial $1 million struggle to take on Uncle Sam, and he understands why Sturgeon signed off the amendment.

But, Arno added, settling the lawsuit would just continue a long and bitter fight over fish and wildlife management in the north that needs to be resolved.


ANILCA and subsequent court decisions have given federal officials authority to oversee the management of many of the state’s major fisheries to protect an ANILCA-mandated harvest priority for rural Alaskans. In no other state does a rule like this apply.

The issue has bitterly divided Alaskans along urban-rural lines since ANILCA passed in 1980. Congress decided the subsistence priority was necessary to protect the lifestyle of the state’s rural residents at a time when the world was threatening to begin changing at mobile-phone speed.

The first mobile phones went on sale in the United States, though not in Alaska, three years later at a cost of $4,000 each. Alaska in 1980 was just beginning the age of live television. 

A  lot has changed since then. Smartphones are now as ubiquitous in rural Alaska as in the rest of the country. But a lot remains the same.

Food remains costly in rural Alaska. People still depend heavily on fish and wildlife for food. And rural remains firmly undefined by the feds.

The booming, commercial fishing port of Kodiak is considered rural. The wide spot on the Kenai Peninsula’s Seward Highway called “Moose Pass” is considered urban. The community of Houston, population 2,290 on the George Parks Highway about 60 miles north of Anchorage, is urban; the community of Willow, population 2,100, and 17 miles up the road, is rural.

Both Willow and Houston are in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which is considered part of the Anchorage Metropolitan Area home to more than half the state’s population.  Everyone in the Anchorage Borough proper, which covers nearly 2,000-square-miles and has in its heart a half-million acre wilderness park, is considered urban even though there are people living rural around the fringes.

Subsistence and subsistence

Meanwhile, the federal subsistence law isn’t the only subsistence law in Alaska. The state has its own subsistence law that distinguishes between Alaskans based on their past hunting and fishing experiences, dependence on fish and wildlife for food, and place of residence if  – the magic “if” – resources are judged to be in such short supply general seasons for hunting and fishing for everyone appear inadequate to meet food needs.

With Alaska salmon returning in record numbers, there have been few state subsistence fights over fish, but there are regular state battles over who gets to harvest wildlife. Against this backdrop, the Outdoor Council has pushed what the state calls “intensive management” and what conservationist groups blast as “predator control.”

No matter what it is called, the intent is to try to maximize the number of moose and caribou, the most popular food animals in Alaska, to minimize the need to draw lines between Alaskans to decide who gets to hunt.

Suffice to say, nothing gets much more complicated in the 49th state than the politics and regulation of fish and game.  The issues would be difficult and complicated with only one political entity managing things.

They are doubly complicated with the state and federal government often managing the same resources in different ways. Not to mention doubly expensive with two governments entities involved.

Were this not enough, the situation gets yet more complicated thanks to a federal process that limits the involvement of urban Alaskans, and the increasing willingness of government officials, both state and federal, to manage by fiat, using broad “emergency” authorities.

Months before the start of fishing seasons in Alaska’s Copper River basin last year, Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials ordered that entire Eastern Alaska drainage closed to sport fishing and personal-use dipnetting for king salmon and sharply restricted commercial and subsistence harvests. The agency has done much the same thing this year in the Susitna River drainage north of the state’s largest city.

Such actions in the past usually went to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the state policy-making body, for consideration and public review before action. The Outdoor Council has regularly complained about the public now being cut out of the loop, and Arno said the latest action by the Walker administration appears more of the same.

Smoke-filled room

The proposed ANILCA amendments were drafted in secret by Lindemuth, Findley and Kitka, and sent by letter to Murkowski. Only then did the news of what was up leak out.

Kitka’s role in the process was to protect the interests of both Native corporations and individual Natives. Though most of Native Alaskans now live in what the federal government considers “urban” areas of Alaska and are those denied subsistence priorities, subsistence remains a vital, cultural touchstone to the Native community in a world that has accelerated from changing at the speed of a brick-size mobile phone to changing at the much higher speed of a smart phone that puts the internet in your hand.

Walker – who is facing re-election and vitally needs the Native vote, especially the rural Native vote, according the political pundits right and left agree – has committed himself to protecting that federal subsistence priority even while chastising the federal government for too much involvement in state affairs in the north.

If the Walker administration could settle the Sturgeon suit, thus helping out an old, long-time Alaskan, and at the same time reinforce the federal subsistence priority for rural Alaska, most political analysts believe it would be a win-win for the governor, whose negatives among conservatives are already so high as to make that voting block a write off.

When Arno queried the AG’s office about the latest lack of pubic involvement in a fish and wildlife issue, he got an email back from Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills saying, “First, I hope everyone realizes the amendment language was agreed to by John Sturgeon, which is why his attorney signed the letter.”

The missive went on to add that “the only other clarification is that rural subsistence preference still applies which doesn’t change existing law.

“I hope that helps. All involved felt this could fix this issue long-term.”

Mills was apparently unaware the last thing the conservatively inclined Outdoor Council hoped for was continuation of the complicated and costly system of state-federal, joint management.

After decades of this, Arno said, the situation has reached the point where it would be better – if it comes to that – to just let the feds takeover the management of Alaska fisheries on all of the state’s big, navigable rivers,  and let the state and feds individually manage wildlife and freshwater fishes on the lands they control.

At least that way, he argued, Average Joe Alaska might be able to figure out what has become on an almost insanely complicated regulatory structure. And the only way to get to that point, he argued, is to litigate the Sturgeon suit to an end.

“The Supremes should say ‘yeah or nay,’ and get it over with,” Arno said. “Either way, tell us now,” so everyone can move on.












3 replies »

  1. All the result of increased population along with increased technology. I recall my old friend (now diseased) Ray Tremblay, just shaking his head not to mention Jay Hammond and Jim Branson…

  2. Craig – I enjoy most of your columns (or is “blogs” the correct term?), but this one has several typos and errors of syntax, e.g., you used “right off” instead of “write-off.” Let me know if you need an editor or proofreader.

    • the answer to that is obvious, isn’t it, Martin?; if you catch them, message me. tightrope walking without a net is never easy.
      and i simply call the correct term “journalism.” sometimes i wonder if it is a dying art in America.
      write off has been fixed. thank you very much.
      could it have been a Freudian slip in the lefty-righty world of today?

Leave a Reply