Subsistence hunting, fishing rights under attack in Alaska

A debate over hunting and fishing rights is shaping up in this state. It has the potential for becoming one of the most bitterly divisive topics Alaska has ever known.

At issue is a life style rare in the United States: subsistence hunting and fishing. The seeds of the controversy were sewn in 1978, when Alaska legislators passed a priority subsistence law. In essence, the law gives native Alaskans priority hunting and fishing rights during periods when fish and game stocks are low.

The bill was intended to protect the traditional life style of rural Alaskans - most of whom are natives, and most of whom depend upon the fish and game they capture for survival.

In recent months, however, Alaska's sport hunters and fishermen - many of whom are urban whites - have begun fighting back on grounds that the subsistence law is reverse discrimination. This effort centers on a November ballot measure that would repeal the state law. Their move plays off a sometimes-voiced feeling that Alaskan natives are getting more than their fair share of the state's goods. This, in turn, has sparked widespread concern that the subsistence debate will degenerate into a racial issue.

''It's gaining overt racial overtones,'' says one longtime observer. ''It could be a very serious focus point for a lot of undefined racial animosities. It will be an intensely contested ballot issue.''

Native leaders have responded by launching an approximately $400,000 information campaign aimed at explaining to urban voters what subsistence hunting and fishing is all about.

''We'd like to create a cultural awareness of what it means,'' says native lobbyist Sam Kito, who has been involved in the campaign called Alaskans for Sensible Fish and Game Management.

Mr. Kito says the racial issue will be played down. In attempting to woo the 30 percent of voters who, according to state campaign polls, are undecided on the issue, anti-repeal activists will emphasize that the federal government has said it will step in if the subsistence law is repealed. This would be particularly odious to many Alaskans, who have a distrust and dislike of what they see as federal meddling in state affairs.

In fact, US Interior Secretary James G. Watt has made it clear that under the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which specifically protects rural subsistence hunters, his department would be forced to take control of all fish and game on federal lands if the subsistence law is repealed.

Currently the state is responsible for managing all fish and game resources. Any change in that policy, says Bob Clasby, a regulation specialist with the state's Department of Fish and Game, would create ''a lot of difficulty'' in trying to split the management of fish and game, which migrate back and forth between federal and state lands.

Repeal proponents, however, say that even before the issue comes to a vote in November, they plan to take the state and federal governments to court. They argue that the recognition of subsistence users' rights is discriminatory because, says repeal leader Sam McDowell, ''all the resources (on public land) belong to everybody.''

Many urban hunters and fishermen argue that they still depend on fish and game for subsistence living as a means of supplementing their incomes and offsetting Alaska's notoriously high cost of living.

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