In Alaska, where fish, caribou, berries, and wild greens provide the primary food source for most rural families, the war over who has first dibs on wild resources is headed for a decisive battle.
The federal government demands that those who use the land for "subsistence living" get priority. But the state says that's illegal - its constitution promises equal access to state resources for all Alaskans.
If the two don't come to an agreement by Oct. 1, the US government has said it will take over the management of fishing rights on Alaska's vast federal lands, which make up almost two-thirds of the state.
For many people here - who see any sort of federal intervention as unwelcome - the issue has stirred up sentiments as deep and unyielding as the Bering Sea.
But it has also become a political lodestone for many native Alaskans, who see subsistence living as a part of their increasingly marginalized heritage. Indeed, it has prompted citizens here to ask: "Who are real Alaskans?" and who should benefit from the state's natural treasures.
A federal takeover would be "an immense departure" from the traditional relationship between states and the federal government, says Dick Bishop, vice president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, a sports hunting and fishing group.
Moreover, the decision could affect the roughly 200,000 non-Alaskans who come to the state to fish. "Those nonresidents would be even a little further to the back of the bus with regard to fishing and hunting than the nonrural Alaskans."
Historically, the attempt to set up priorities for people who use the land for subsistence living has been problematic.
Defining 'subsistence living'
There has been an aversion to setting aside resources for native Alaskans, because there are nonnative people who also live off the land. In addition, some native Alaskans in urban areas don't hunt or fish at all.
Yet there has also been controversy over the idea of giving rural Alaskans priority - the method currently backed by the federal government. It was unpopular because some urban Alaskans - natives and nonnatives - support themselves part of the year by hunting and fishing.
The question of who gets to shoot a particular caribou may not seem important south of the Arctic Circle, but native groups say it has important cultural and religious meaning for native people throughout the United States.
"The tribes generally understand that if the antinative forces are able to take away hunting and fishing rights in Alaska, who's going to be next in the Lower 48?" says John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund in Colorado. "We're all in the same boat, and we can't just stand idly by and watch one tribe lose those rights."
Fishing rights on the Columbia River, for instance, are also being contested. And on the Snake River in Idaho, the Nez Perce tribe is fighting for sufficient stream flows past four dams to sustain the salmon runs. The battle could require the removal of those dams.
In its recent term, the US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of native hunting and fishing rights in Minnesota, and the Mattaponi tribe in Virginia is trying to save a fishery from a proposed dam. In Maine, the Passamaquoddy tribe has been battling the state over its rights to capture lobster off the coast.
Here in Alaska, advocates for native Alaskans have joined with conservation groups to encourage Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to enforce the federal law.
"Congress recognized the protection of subsistence resources and subsistence itself as part of a conservation goal," says Heather Kendall-Miller, an Anchorage attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.
Others, however, remain somewhat wary of the Oct. 1 deadline. Pete Schaeffer, executive director of the native village of Kotzebue, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, says a federal takeover would provide local people with more input to managing resources. But he is more blunt in describing the outcome he desires: "The best solution is just leave us bloody alone."
Who's in control
Federal officials do not relish taking over the state's responsibilities.
"Having us manage subsistence fisheries is duplicative and will cost the taxpayers more," says Marilyn Heiman, special assistant in Alaska for the Interior Department. "It's not probably the best use of everyone's energy at this time."
"We're very reluctant to be moving in this direction, but we simply have no choice," says Tom Boyd, assistant regional director for subsistence for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.
He estimates that subsistence users account for about 1 percent of the total harvest, though that varies by region. Between 30 and 50 percent of the fish caught in the Yukon River, for example, go to subsistence users.
The Alaska Outdoor Council would like to see the federal law amended to parallel the state constitution, and to give priority to people who rely on hunting and fishing regardless of where they live, but his opponents believe that is unlikely.
Several years ago, Mr. Bishop worked on an advisory committee to the previous governor, creating a plan whereby Alaskans in remote areas would get a priority. Those in small towns could get access to fishing and hunting rights easily, and those in cities would need to prove their past use of fish and game for part of their livelihood. The legislature did not accept the plan.
With the Oct. 1 deadline looming, Gov. Tony Knowles has called a special legislative session in September to address the problem, and to try to find a solution to stop a federal takeover
"Ceding this responsibility back to federal government just runs contrary to everything Alaska gained in the statehood movement," said Bob King, press secretary to Governor Knowles. "It's turning the clock back 40 years."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society