Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 6:

J. The SRCs During the 1980s: Concluding Remarks

During the late 1970s, Alaska's two senators had insisted upon the inclusion of the various SRCs as part of developing Alaska Lands Act legislation. (As Chapter 4 indicates, the Senate had included the idea of various park-specific commissions in its October 1978 report; by contrast, the bills that passed the House in both May 1978 and May 1979 had called for a series of local advisory committees that would have been independent of NPS boundaries.) The specific purpose Congress granted to the various commissions was fairly narrow—to initially "devise and recommend to the Secretary and the Governor a program for subsistence hunting within the park or park monument," and thereafter to "make recommendations to the Secretary and Governor for any changes in the program or its implementation which the commission deems necessary." [200]

Beyond the commissions' specific purpose, both the NPS and area subsistence users recognized that a primary goal of the SRCs was to provide local input to agency personnel. But no sooner had the SRCs begun to operate than dramatically differing institutional personalities began to be manifested. Three park units—Denali and Lake Clark national parks and Aniakchak National Monument—had relatively few subsistence users, and existing users appear to have been relatively comfortable with the way the NPS administered its subsistence regulations. With two other commissions—Gates of the Arctic and Wrangell-St. Elias—the contrasting philosophies between SRC members and the NPS brought friction. And in northwestern Alaska, the predominance of a single Native cultural group (the Inupiat Eskimo) and a single, powerful Native regional corporation (NANA) caused the two SRCs in that area—Cape Krusenstern and Kobuk Valley—to assume distinct identities and working relationships from the other five commissions.

That friction should have arisen between the NPS and area subsistence users was both inevitable and predictable. The NPS, as part of "the nation's principal conservation agency," was known around the world because, for more than 60 years, it had fought "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein." [201] With only scattered exceptions (as noted in Chapter 2), NPS lands prohibited resource harvesting activities, and the agency's positive public image was built, in large part, on its success in protecting park resources from hunters, collectors, and other resource users. The Alaska Lands Act, however, expressly permitted a wide range of subsistence uses within most of the newly-established and newly-expanded park units. NPS officials fully recognized that subsistence uses were a valid aspect of these park units. The Service's institutional philosophy, however, militated against an easy acceptance of these contrasting land uses. Moreover, those in charge of administering the agency's subsistence program—some of whom were unfamiliar with Alaska and its unique rural lifestyles—often chose to narrowly interpret the newly-established subsistence regulations.

Many subsistence users, by contrast, hoped for a broader interpretation of those same regulations. Before ANILCA was passed, many Natives who lived in and around the newly-established parks were from families who had carried on subsistence activities for hundreds of years, and most non-Native subsistence users had moved to rural Alaska, in part, to enjoy a lifestyle that was largely free from bureaucratic regulations. Natives, as a rule, supported ANILCA because it supported a continuation of their harvesting patterns, but non-Native hunters and fishers (again, as a rule) resented ANILCA because it imposed new regulatory roadblocks onto what had heretofore been, relatively speaking, a laissez faire system. Regardless of their feelings toward the Act itself, however, many rural residents—both Native and non-Native—were unhappy with specific ANILCA-based regulations, and it was at the SRC meetings where these people—many of whom were unfamiliar with those regulations—vented their collective spleen at NPS officials.

At SRC meetings, NPS officials got to know local subsistence users and learn about their lifeways, and it was at those same meetings where SRC members heard from NPS officials about how the agency—tied as it was to ANILCA and its regulations—explained how it intended to oversee subsistence issues. At meetings of some of the less contentious SRCs, the interplay between agency officials and subsistence users was amicable and low-key. But at others, starkly contrasting philosophies resulted in anger and antagonism. The Wrangell-St. Elias SRC, for example, passed several resolutions calling for the legitimization of practices (dealing with aircraft access and wolf control, for example) that were clearly contrary to agency regulations. (They were told beforehand that there was little chance of the Interior Secretary accepting them; and when the resolutions were in fact refused, they were submitted again in largely the same format as before.) The Gates of the Arctic SRC, another hotbed of independent-minded souls, passed a large number of resolutions that, in the federal government's opinion, were irrelevant to the "subsistence hunting program" called for in ANILCA. Moreover, all of the SRC's remaining resolutions (in other words, those that were deemed relevant) were, like those at Wrangell-St. Elias, rejected by the Interior Department. These refusals, which were issued in the spring of 1988, caused some commission members to be angry with, and distrustful of, agency officials.

Compounding the anger and distrust was a real or perceived lack of money for SRC operations. The various SRC charters, first signed in May 1982, called for an annual expenditure of $10,000 for each SRC, most of those funds to be expended for travel and per diem costs to an expected two meetings per year. SRC members soon found, however, that the given cost was fairly elastic; actual annual costs, during the first two fiscal years, ranged from approximately $1,600 to more than $48,000. (See Appendix 5.) Members were disappointed to learn that the various SRC budgets—with rare exceptions—did not allow authorized travel to other SRC meetings, to local Regional Advisory Council meetings, to state Game Board meetings, or for expert witnesses pertaining to pertinent SRC issues. [202] And in mid-1986, cutbacks to the NPS budget caused by the December 1985 passage of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act were so severe that SRC activity practically ceased for more than six months. (One Commission chair, James Schwarber from Gates of the Arctic, quit in disgust during this period, citing a "deteriorating level of support" and a "continuing lack of a comprehensive support policy.") SRC members grumbled, with some justification, that funds appeared to be available for actions perceived to be in the agency's best interests—for meetings to help determine subsistence use zones, for example—but scant funds were available for actions that furthered the interests of subsistence users. [203]

A frustration expressed by many SRC members was their inability to effectively interact with the other SRCs on matters of mutual interest. The NPS's primary way of keeping members current was to distribute meeting minutes to all of the state's SRCs. This system, however, proved ineffective because minutes had to be approved prior to distribution, and often a year or more lapsed before meeting minutes could be approved. The many meetings in which a quorum could not be mustered merely exacerbated this problem. [204] To enhance communications, commission members also expressed an interest in meeting with one another, and in August 1985, members of the Wrangell-St. Elias SRC asked in exasperation, "will the Commission chairmen ever be able to meet with one another?" Perhaps in response to their outcry, the various SRC chairs met for two days in Anchorage in mid-November 1985. But that meeting proved highly contentious—two State of Alaska officials, at one point, became so incensed at the comments of one NPS official that they stormed out in frustration—and the next SRC chairs' meeting did not take place for another three years. [205] The NPS, hoping to maintain a dialogue, followed up its 1988 meeting (held on November 29-30 in Fairbanks) with a similar confab a year later (December 7, 1989, in Anchorage).

Based on their track record, the SRCs' success during the 1980s, at least to some extent, was based on various individuals' philosophical attitudes toward federal authority. Gates of the Arctic chair James Schwarber, in his resignation letter, stated that "the NPS continues to assign subsistence such a low priority among its responsibilities, that it appears to have no priority at all," and Wrangell-St. Elias SRC chair Bill Ellis, rankled over the NPS's opinion in the aircraft-access issue, told another SRC chair that "I have the feeling that we [i.e., the SRCs] are something that just has to be put up with and if we can be suppressed in any manner (commission appointments, money, etc.) it will be done. ... It is my impression that the Park Service feels the subsistence resource commissions are something to be listened to patiently and then ignored completely." But Denali SRC chair Florence Collins disagreed with Ellis; she told him that "the Park Service has been very cooperative with the Commission" and averred that "without the parks I think subsistence people would be a lot worse off than with them." [206] The opinions of other SRC members no doubt ran the gamut between those extremes of opinion, and most understood the inevitable tension between NPS policies and subsistence users' interests. All parties recognized that some policy differences had been ironed out during the first few years of the SRCs' existence. But as the decade of the 1980s wound down, many unresolved conflicts remained.

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003