Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 1:

E. Statehood and its Ramifications

As noted above, the U.S. Census in 1900 first recorded that the Alaska non-Native population exceeded that of Alaska's Natives. The population of the two groups, however, was fairly similar, and as the twentieth century wore on it remained so; as late as 1939, Alaska's racial composition was approximately 54% white, 45% Native, and 1% from all other groups. But World War II brought a massive influx of non-Natives to support the war effort, and in-migration (primarily from the "lower 48") continued during the booming postwar years. Because of improved conditions, the Native population expanded, too, but by 1960 Natives comprised less than 19 percent of Alaska's population. [23] (See Table 1-1) New highways, airports, communications sites, oil drilling pads, and homesteads began to dot the landscape. The Anchorage and Fairbanks areas and the Kenai Peninsula witnessed the most profound changes, but to a lesser extent, life also began to change in the Alaska bush.

A major political movement in Alaska during the postwar period was the push for statehood. A statehood bill had first been submitted by Alaska's Congressional delegate back in 1916, but little momentum for statehood was generated until World War II. After the war, the informal team of Delegate E. L. "Bob" Bartlett and Governor Ernest Gruening applied pressure at every turn in the statehood cause. That cause was helped immeasurably by a referendum that was held on the subject in November 1946; in that vote, more than 58 percent of those who went to the polls favored statehood. The road to statehood proved long and arduous, however, and Congress did not pass a statehood bill until June 1958. Alaska officially became the 49th U.S. state on January 3, 1959. [24]

The Alaska Statehood Act stated clearly that all Alaskans should have equal access to the state's fish and game resources. Article VIII, Section 3 stated that "Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife and waters are reserved for common use." Section 15 stated that "No exclusive right or special privilege shall be created or authorized in the natural waters of the State," and Section 17 read that "Laws and regulations governing the use or disposal of natural resources shall apply equally to all purposes similarly situated with reference to the subject matter and purpose to be served by the law or regulation." [25] Thus all Alaskans—rural and urban, Native and non-Native—had equal access to Alaska's fish and game resources. These statements would loom into ever-greater significance in future years as federal and state interests grappled over legal rights to the management of state resources. The ramifications of these jurisdictional tug-of-wars will be discussed in chapters 6 and 8.

In the minds of Alaska's Natives, statehood represented a new, ominous threat to the use of their traditional lands, because it set in motion a process by which millions of acres would be conveyed to state ownership. Prior to statehood, more than 99 percent of Alaska's land area was owned by the Federal government, and the provisions by which land could be secured for specific purposes (via homesteads, trade and manufacturing sites, Native allotments, Federal conservation withdrawals, etc.) were sufficiently narrow in their scope that the vast majority of Alaska outside of the southeastern panhandle was still open entry land. [26] Alaska's Natives—who lived and carried on subsistence activities on much of this land—were given mixed messages regarding their legal rights to it. Section 8 of Alaska's first Organic Act, passed in 1884, merely reiterated the status quo from the 1867 Alaska Purchase Treaty when it stated:

the Indians or other persons in said district shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands actually in their use or occupations or now claimed by them but the terms under which such persons may acquire title to such lands is reserved for future legislation by Congress. [27]

Native interests, over the years, attempted to address the long-standing problem of aboriginal title through "future legislation," the first bill with that goal in mind having been introduced in 1940. Congress, however, sidestepped the question, both in 1940 and throughout the period leading up to statehood. [28] Section 4 of the Alaska Statehood Act made no move to quash that quest; it suggested a preference of Native subsistence rights over those of the proposed state when it noted that "said State and its people do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title ... to any lands or other property (including fishing rights), the right or title to which may be held by any Indians, Eskimos, or Aleuts...." Indeed, a later court ruling explained that the act "would neither extinguish [aboriginal and possessory claims] nor recognize them as compensable." But the Statehood Act made no attempt to resolve the long-simmering question of aboriginal title; and more ominously, Section 6(b) of the same act permitted the new state to select up to 102,550,000 acres of "vacant, unappropriated and unreserved" public [i.e., federal] lands in Alaska. This acreage represented more than one-quarter of Alaska's land area—an area roughly the size of California. And regardless of where the state made its selections, the lands it chose would be impinging on areas that Natives had used from time immemorial. [29]

The statehood act, despite its failure to provide a land settlement, gave the state's rural residents (many of whom were Native) their first subsistence protections. Prior to statehood, such protections were largely unnecessary because neither residents nor Outside sportsmen exerted much long-term impact on game and fish stocks, except in the areas surrounding a few large towns. As AFN attorney Donald Mitchell noted in a hearing, years later, before the state legislature,

There was little [resource] pressure because there was such a small population in Alaska; there was not unacceptable levels of pressure on a lot of rural fish and game resources. ... and the federal statutes that controlled the regulation of fish and game were relatively liberal because they had no reason to be otherwise.

Hugh Wade (left), Alaska's acting territorial governor in 1958, fought to ensure that Alaska's Natives would have a fair share of the new state's fish and game resources. William A. Egan (right) served as Alaska's first governor (1959-1966) and again from 1970 to 1974. ASL/PCA 213-1-2

During the late 1950s, the territorial legislature prepared for statehood in two significant ways. First, the 1957 legislature passed a bill (SB 30) that established the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Fish and Game Commission, and a key part (Section 5) of that bill provided for fish and game advisory committees. The establishment of a broad network of advisory committees offered local residents throughout Alaska the potential to affect Fish and Game Commission decision making. (The bill's immediate impact, however, was more apparent than real; by the end of 1958, most of the six active advisory committees were located in towns with relatively large, non-Native populations.) [30] The legislature also geared up for statehood by formulating a series of statutes that would provide the basis for regulations. One of those statutes dealt with Fish and Game regulation (which later became Title 16 under the State of Alaska's statutory system), but according to Mitchell's recollection, the legislature "somehow ... failed to include adequate provision to take care of the Native people that resided in rural Alaska that had a very large stake in fish and game resources." [31] But Alaska's acting governor at the time was Hugh Wade, a former area director of the Alaska Native Service, [32] and Wade reacted to the statute's passage by writing a letter stating "that there must have been some mistake" in omitting resource protection to Alaska's Natives. That letter was forwarded on to Washington, D.C. where it was introduced onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the thrust of Wade's letter eventually emerged as Section 6(e) of the Statehood Act. Section 6(e), according to Mitchell, "reserved to the federal government the authority to manage fish and game until such time as the Secretary of the Interior certified that the Alaska Legislature had submitted a proposal for the adequate management of Alaska's fish and wildlife resources." [33]

In 1959, the newly-minted state legislature—recognizing that the federal government held a de facto veto pen over Alaska's fish and game statutes—adopted a fish and game statute (Title 16) that distinctly defined the difference between sport and subsistence fishing. This statute, which was to be administered by the Alaska Board of Fish and Game, became effective in 1960. [34] It defined fishing according to gear type; subsistence fishing was defined as a personal-use activity that relied on gill nets, seines, fish-wheels and similar gear, [35] while sport fishing implied a hook-and-line harvesting method. In accordance with this distinction, subsistence users were required to obtain a permit and to submit harvest records to the Department of Fish and Game, and separate subsistence regulations were included in the state's first-ever commercial fishing regulations booklets. [36] Separate classifications, however, did not imply a preference for subsistence fishing over sport or commercial fishing, and urban residents were free to engage in subsistence fishing. In regard to hunting, the statute made no distinction between subsistence and sport harvests. [37]

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003