Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 6:

B. The State of Alaska's Subsistence Management Program

In the wake of the legislature's approval of a revised subsistence law, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game continued to manage Alaska's fish and wildlife throughout the state; they did so with the reassuring knowledge that they had the legal clearance to do so for subsistence uses as well as for sport, commercial, and personal-use purposes. The state agency continued to administer the subsistence regulations through the fish and game boards.

The game board responded to the revised subsistence law by making a series of new determinations of rural versus non-rural residency. Their first actions were taken in a Juneau emergency meeting from May 27 to June 4, 1986, less than a month after the subsistence law was passed. Because the previous year's Tier II hunts were now irrelevant, the board—hoping to re-establish a legal basis for future hunts—made its initial rural versus non-rural determinations in areas where Tier II hunts had been held during the summer and fall of 1985. Five months later, in late November 1986, the Joint Board of Fisheries and Game met in hopes of classifying each Alaska community as either rural or non-rural. Using more sophisticated criteria than the game board had used, the joint board largely rubber-stamped the game board's actions and classified many additional communities as well. They were unable to complete the task, however, and it was not until March 1987 that the joint board had completed its initial classification. [20] In 1987 and 1988, the joint boards mulled over the proposed reclassification of several communities that had both rural and non-rural characteristics, [21] and in April 1989 a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge handed down a key decision about the Kenai Peninsula, another area with both rural and non-rural characteristics. [22] By the end of the decade, rural Alaska (as designated by the joint board) was somewhat smaller than the joint board had decreed back in April 1982. All of Alaska was rural except for a majority of the Kenai Peninsula; the Valdez, Ketchikan, and Juneau areas; and most of the railbelt between Seward and Fairbanks. [23]

The fish and game boards made other actions in response to the new subsistence law. Because a rural preference had been reinstituted, the Tier II hunts of 1985 were discarded and the three-tiered system in place prior to February 1985 was restored. [24] Because a key to eligibility under the new system was a community's ability to prove "customary and traditional" use of local subsistence resources (using the eight criteria adopted in December 1981), the Alaska game and fish boards—backed by the research efforts of ADF&G Subsistence Division staff—made a number of "customary and traditional" determinations. These were not the first such determinations; prior to 1986, the Board of Game had made a "C&T" ruling on Nelchina caribou, and the Board of Fisheries had made a similar ruling on Copper River salmon. The number of rulings increased, however, after 1986; typically, the game and fish boards made such determinations for populations and stocks that were subject to regulatory actions or conservation concerns. By 1989, the two boards had made C&T determinations on most major wildlife species, black bears being a notable exception. [25]

The Alaska Game Board, as had been true since ANILCA's passage, relied to some extent on the recommendations provided by the six regional advisory councils, the scores of local advisory committees, and agency staff. Congress, through the provisions contained in Section 805 of ANILCA, intended that the six regional advisory councils would be primary vehicles by which subsistence information would be reported to the fish and game boards, and they would also be the primary forums for advocating issues of interest to subsistence users.

In order to carry out the stipulations of Section 805, the ADF&G in early 1985 hired staff coordinators for each regional advisory council (as noted in Chapter 5), and several of the councils held a meeting soon afterward. (Except for the Interior Council, the various councils had been inactive for the previous two years, and a few had been dormant since their initial meetings in early 1982.) The various coordinators were hopeful that each council would start meeting on a regular basis; two meetings per year was considered the minimum in order to transmit meaningful recommendations to the fish and game boards. (See Appendix 2.) The coordinators were similarly hopeful that the councils would send annual reports on their activities to the Interior Secretary's representative. [26] That lofty goal, however, was dashed by the grim financial realities of the mid-1980s. The "oil bust," caused by a reduction in the cost per barrel of North Slope oil combined with a reduction of oil output, put a severe strain on the state's budget, and the reduction in the state's budget was felt particularly keenly by the ADF&G's Division of Boards. As a report written in late 1985 noted,

Since the beginning of the State Fiscal Year in July 1985, the Division of Boards has been forced to operate under a substantially reduced budget with a major reduction in the allocation of travel money for advisory committees and councils. ... These reductions in travel money have caused some discontent among local and regional committee members. [27]

This financial crunch was exacerbated by the federal government's refusal to provide the full measure of fiscal participation that had been suggested by ANILCA. As noted in Chapter 5, so-called "ANILCA reimbursements" had begun in Fiscal Year 1982, and for the next several years the federal government had provided the state $1 million annually to the state. (See Table 5-3) State and federal authorities, however, quarreled over the funding level. State officials, citing Section 805(e) language that such reimbursement levels "may not exceed 50 per centum of such costs in any fiscal year" and that total annual payments "shall not exceed the sum of $5,000,000," complained that they were being underpaid. Fish and Game Commissioner Don Collinsworth, for example, complained in a 1987 letter that

We continue to believe that the current level of reimbursement, averaging 20% of the costs of the state program, is not adequate to provide the support contemplated in ANILCA. We believe that Section 805 establishes a compact between the state and federal government that requires an adequate level of reimbursement. ... The state should be reimbursed the full 50% for costs associated with implementation of Section 805. [28]

A year later, the State of Alaska's concerns were again reflected in language contained within the federal government's annual Section 806 report. "The state of Alaska," the report noted, "believes that serious consideration should be given to significantly increasing the grant program administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Department of Fish and Game to assist in both the fish and game advisory system as well as subsistence research." [29] But federal officials were lukewarm to the state's pleas, for two reasons. First, they found it impossible—despite repeated attempts—to pinpoint where, within ADF&G, the Section 805 funds were being spent. [30] Second, they were concerned about the health of the regional advisory councils. A major purpose of the ANILCA reimbursement was for council support, but federal officials were well aware that the state was less than enthusiastic in this regard. They perceived that the state was using very little of the federal government's Section 805 funds for the operation of the regional councils. This perception, correct or not, did not auger well for increased reimbursements in future years. [31]

The regional councils' anemic funding levels, which persisted for much of the 1980s, resulted in their inability to perform many basic functions. Because of chronic funding shortages, and because of problems related to weather and the itinerant nature of subsistence activity, the three councils that were located away from Alaska's main road and ferry system (specifically the Western, Southwest, and Arctic councils) met either intermittently or not at all for the remainder of the decade. Due to the paucity of meetings, none of the councils was able to complete an annual report. In the other three regions, travel costs were less burdensome; consequently, the regional councils were able to meet more frequently. But even in these regions, councils rarely met more than once per year, and the preparation of annual reports was the exception rather than the rule. [32] Exacerbating these difficulties was the ADF&G's inability to keep staff coordinators (see Appendix 2). Although all six regions had a staff liaison in June 1985, budget difficulties forced a reduction in the number of staff positions to five in June 1986, to four in June 1987, and to just one in June 1988. [33]

As if financial and staff difficulties were not enough, the various regional councils also suffered from a lack of direction; as Morehouse and Holleman have noted, the various councils "were not committed to subsistence uses in purpose or composition. They were also ... lacking in clear, consistent procedures." [34] The Division of Boards, asked to look into the matter, "identified as a major concern the ambiguity surrounding the role of the advisory committees in the State rule-making processes" and noted the "lack of definition and clarity in the State and Federal statutes regarding the role of the committees and councils." Some regional councils, as a result, did not meet because of a perceived "lack of pressing needs." The writing of annual reports, moreover, may have been overlooked either because the councils did not perceive "a sufficient number of issues to warrant the writing of an annual report" or because of a "perception that agencies are not responsive to these reports." [35]

Two specific problems—federal versus state mandates and inconsistent attitudes toward regional council input—contributed to the shared sense of confusion. State officials, citing specific state regulations and Section 805(a)(3) of ANILCA, told the regional councils that one of their primary responsibilities should be making recommendations about proposed fish and wildlife regulations. [36] But according to ANILCA's dictates, the council's only officially-prescribed avenue of expression was its annual report to the Interior Secretary. Federal officials, asked to comment on what an annual report should ideally contain, did not dispute the councils' role in making fish and wildlife recommendations. They did, however, note that these recommendations had no place in the annual report. "The reports," they noted, "might be most effective if they focus on land management issues for which the federal agencies have jurisdiction. Examples of such issues raised in past reports include comments and recommendations on land management plans, ... on cabin policy, fire management, water quality, park subsistence resource commissions, and subsistence data needs on public lands in a particular region." [37] Compounding the councils' frustration was the extent to which federal agencies paid attention to their recommendations. The regional councils typically expended a substantial amount of effort in the preparation of their annual reports, and council members were often chagrined when Interior Department representatives either gave less than forthright responses, waited many months to respond, or (on occasion) failed to respond at all. [38]

Underlying the poor functioning of the regional advisory councils was the lack of a core support constituency. Congress had insisted on the councils due to the AFN and other rural-Alaska concerns, but virtually no one in Alaska fought for their legitimacy. The state's many local advisory committees felt threatened by them; the ADF&G bureaucracy, long dominated by sport and commercial interests, had little interest in supporting them; and even Congress, which had created the councils, was tepid in the financial contributions it made to their operation.

It appears, in retrospect, that Congress had envisioned that the regional councils would be a voice for subsistence users, much as the well-established local fish and game advisory committees were a forum for the views of sport and commercial hunters and fishermen. But the reality of the regional councils, in most instances, fell short of that goal. With rare exceptions, the councils did not provide input to the joint boards regarding proposed changes in the fish and wildlife regulations, and few of the regional councils' recommendations suggested changes to either federal or state subsistence policies. [39]

Rural Native groups, who stood to gain the most benefit from a well-established system of regional councils, were particularly frustrated by the inadequacy of their implementation. They were disappointed that many council members, while "residents of the region" (as ANILCA demanded) were not subsistence users, and they were displeased at the perceived bias in the decisions rendered by the joint boards. As Thomas Morehouse and Marybeth Holleman noted in an overview of the subsistence management system,

The problem [was that] the whole structure of regulation depended on the judgments and actions of state boards and agencies that were largely controlled or influenced by sport and commercial users and professional wildlife managers. Thus, vague or abstract statutory terms like "customary and traditional uses" and "reasonable opportunity" were defined and interpreted by regulators and managers whose values, interests, and experiences typically were not those of rural, and especially Native, subsistence users. The result was subsistence regulation based on a sport and commercial model, definitions of "customary and traditional uses" that reflected individual instead of group or collective interests and practices, and a management orientation that viewed subsistence more as a state-bestowed privilege than a federally-guaranteed right. [40]

State fish and game officials, prodded by complaints from federal officials and rural subsistence users, reacted as best as they could to the inequities in the state's advisory system. For example, they urged both state and federal officials to provide greater funding; they conducted teleconferences when funding prevented face-to-face meetings; and they urged the regional councils, whenever possible, to submit annual reports. Despite those measures, however, the manifest inequalities of the state-managed system would continue for the remainder of the decade.

Throughout this period, the Subsistence Division in the state's Department of Fish and Game continued to be active. As before, it had two primary functions: providing advice to department managers and the boards of fisheries and game, and researching and publishing a series of baseline subsistence studies. (These studies, based primarily on social science—not biological—research methods, were initially qualitative in nature; toward the late 1980s, however, an ever-greater percentage of the division's reports were quantitatively based.) The division had enjoyed a strong growth during its first five years of existence; according to one employee, the Division "was in its heyday" in 1982, with a 27-member professional staff. But the "oil bust" of the mid-1980s, and its consequent effect on state revenues, hit the division hard, and the division was forced to close four of its nine area offices. Underlying the division's struggle was a recognition by staff that ADF&G was primarily responsive to sport and commercial users and that it was led by those interests were primarily related to resource development and conservation. Given those priorities, the Subsistence Division played a more marginal role in departmental affairs as the decade wore on; by 1990, the division's budget was just 4.7 percent of ADF&G's total. [41]

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003