Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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When the first Europeans visited Alaska's shores during the 1740s, all of the local residents they met were engaged in a subsistence lifestyle. This state of affairs, however, did not last. The arrival of outsiders soon brought development, and consequent resource damage, in various forms; the harvesting of sea otter pelts came first, and before long there were fur-seal harvests, commercial fishing, mines, and farms. Commercial fishing, perhaps the most far-flung industry, brought scores of packing plants and hundreds of fish traps, and virtually all of these developments demanded cities and towns to support and supply them. By the early twentieth century, the invasion of a cash economy had fundamentally altered the lifeways of Native residents throughout Southeastern Alaska, and by the time Alaska gained statehood in the late 1950s, subsistence patterns throughout much of the remainder of Alaska had been altered to a greater or lesser degree. Despite these intrusions, subsistence remained a viable way of life to many residents. Even in Alaska's most remote areas, however, non-Native intrusions brought subtle but important changes to age-old harvesting patterns. In the years that followed statehood, the pace of change accelerated, and developments related to actual or potential oil extraction proliferated in the Alaska "bush." In response to these encroachments, rural residents began to organize, and before long they petitioned government officials in hopes of retaining some protection for their land base and their subsistence way of life. In due time, both the federal and state governments responded. In 1969, the U.S. Congress passed the Tlingit and Haida Settlement Act, which played a large role in settling land claims in southeastern Alaska, and two years later, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which addressed land claims issues elsewhere in the state. Several years later, legislators began to address subsistence issues. In 1978, the Alaska Legislature passed its first subsistence law, and in 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which made extensive provisions for how subsistence resources would be managed on Alaska's federal lands.

This study is a chronicle of how subsistence management in Alaska has grown and evolved. As will be readily seen, the process by which the initial subsistence laws were created was long, tortuous, and emotionally charged. Subsistence management since 1980, moreover, has taken many unexpected twists and turns because of decisions made at the executive, legislative and judicial levels in both the state and federal government. Because Alaska's development patterns, and the relative independence of its Native populations, was so dissimilar from that of the other 49 states, it is perhaps unsurprising that Congress, in 1980, created a subsistence management system that was uniquely tailored to Alaska's people and conditions. Because of this distinctiveness, Federal land managers whose sole work experience has been outside of Alaska have little comprehension of the reality of subsistence or of the legalities of subsistence management. Today, only a select few—primarily managers and staff people in specific state and federal agencies—understand Alaska's regulatory system as it pertains to subsistence, and even fewer are aware of the historical underpinnings of that system. This study, therefore, was commissioned, in part, to provide a step-by-step process for understanding why subsistence regulations developed as they did. It is hoped that this study will help a broad range of people—subsistence managers, superintendents and refuge managers, legislators, subsistence users, and other Alaska residents—gain an appreciation of why the subsistence landscape developed into its present reality.

Subsistence in Alaska today is still an emotional, highly-charged topic, and debates over subsistence policy continue to garner front-page headlines. Perhaps a primary reason for the topic's high visibility hinges on the all-important definition of subsistence. Subsistence—widely perceived as "living off the land"—means different things to different people. Some people tend to define the term narrowly, in terms of its nutritional or economic contributions. Others, however, take a broader view, recognizing that subsistence has cultural and spiritual connotations: that it is nothing less than a way of life or world view of which hunting, fishing, and gathering are only a part. Non-natives tend to support the first definition, Natives the second; but the lines are blurred, and both groups feel that the definition that they use legitimizes their right to harvest the state's subsistence resources.

Many Alaska residents, observing the current status of Alaskan subsistence management, despair at its complexity and its apparent lack of logic, and Alaskans from seemingly all sides of the political spectrum find fault with the current management regime, perhaps because subsistence as practiced today does not conform to their perception of that activity. This study, it is hoped, will attempt to frame Alaskans' confusion over the issue in a historical perspective. The emotions inherent in any debate related to subsistence, however, will doubtless remain for an extended period. A major reason for this state of affairs is that Alaska's population today has grown by more than 200,000 since ANILCA's passage in 1980, and in addition, rising incomes and technological advances have made it far easier for hunters and fishers to gain access to even the most remote parts of Alaska; as a result, there are many more conflicts between subsistence users and other user groups today than there were twenty years ago. Today, the pressure for access to Alaska's rural fish and game resources is so great that rationing of scarce resources is becoming increasingly necessary, and whenever rationing takes place, there are bound to be winner—sand losers. This study documents the nature of the decisionmaking process that has created the rules, regulations, and interpretations that currently hold sway in the subsistence arena.

This study has been organized in a roughly chronological fashion. The first three chapters, all fairly brief, set the stage for ANCSA and other post-1971 events. Chapter 1 is a historical outline of Alaska's lifeways, with a particular emphasis on its Native and rural populations. Chapter 2 is a brief sketch of how the National Park Service, outside of Alaska, established a policy toward subsistence activities, particularly as they relate to Native American residents living adjacent to park units. And Chapter 3 chronicles NPS subsistence-related actions at the three large Alaska units that preceded ANILCA: Mount McKinley National Park, Katmai National Monument, and Glacier Bay National Monument. Given that broad introduction, Chapter 4 describes how Alaska's first subsistence law (in 1978) came to be, and it also explains the administrative and legislative process that brought about ANILCA and its various subsistence provisions.

Later chapters in the study show the process by which the state and federal laws have been implemented. Chapter 5, which spans the 1980-84 period, discusses the initial post-ANILCA period, during which the state and federal governments reached a broad working agreement on subsistence matters and during which initial meetings were held of both the state-sponsored regional subsistence advisory committees and the NPS's subsistence resource commissions. Chapter 6, which covers the remainder of the 1980s, focuses on the Madison court decision and its ramifications, the initial SRC recommendations and the Interior Secretary's responses to them, and other aspects of state and federal subsistence management. Chapter 7, which begins in late 1989, focuses almost entirely upon the McDowell decision and its ramifications; it chronicles the federal assumption of subsistence wildlife management on federal lands, the process by which federal regulations were established according to the new regime, and the creation of the federally-managed regional advisory councils. Chapter 8 deals with NPS subsistence management (specifically wildlife management) during the 1990s, and it features a number of organizational changes within the NPS, and it also chronicles SRC activities and recommendations and the agency's responses to them. Chapter 9 discusses the federal (and specifically the NPS) management of subsistence fisheries; a key theme of this chapter is the landmark Katie John decision and the legislative, administrative, and judicial responses to it. Concluding remarks are offered in Chapter 10.

Inasmuch as this study has been written under NPS auspices, its primarily theme is the National Park Service and its actions relative to subsistence management. Subsistence, however, is a highly cooperative endeavor, and both legal strictures and common logic dictate that any history of this topic must give ample consideration of management efforts by the State of Alaska, and more specifically the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the boards that help establish departmental policy. Also important have been the various sister agencies involved in federal land management policy; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has assumed a critical administrative position, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service also have key roles to play. The Federal Subsistence Board, established in 1990, is a major decisionmaker in the subsistence management arena; its evolution, and the process by which it operates, are covered to some extent in this study. The activities of this and other federal and state entities, however, are usually noted within the context of National Park Service decisionmaking.

As this study has hopefully made clear, the path of subsistence policy development, seen from the long lens of history, has often been volatile and unpredictable. Because of that lack of predictability, any historical study of subsistence—this one included—will soon become dated and irrelevant. As noted in the conclusion, there is virtually no certainty about the future direction of subsistence policymaking. Regardless of that future, it is hoped that this study will provide some perspective on the nature of Alaska subsistence and the role of the National Park Service in managing this all-important activity.

The author has made a good-faith effort to accurately describe and interpret the information contained in this study, and as noted in the acknowledgements, he thanks the many people who have graciously agreed to review draft versions. Any errors of fact or judgment, however, are solely the author's responsibility.

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003