New federal regulations to favor subsistence users, rural residents

The Federal Subsistence Board’s rural determination process will change, according to an announcement made at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention last month.

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The changes should mean a more favorable process for villages and other rural communities that rely on hunting and fishing. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor told AFN attendees that the new regulations will come soon.

“We’re moving out, beginning the discussions,” Connor said. “We’ve got to consult with the state, overall this is strongly supported throughout the leadership at the department of the Interior.”

Title VIII in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, mandates a subsistence preference for rural residents on public lands. Every ten years the Federal Subsistence Board determines whether a community meets certain guidelines to qualify for ANILCA’s subsistence preference. That rural determination process has been harshly criticized in recent years.

In 2007, several communities were told that they were no longer considered to be rural, including the Southeast community of Saxman. The board reasoned that the community’s proximity to non-rural Ketchikan put it in the same category. While the community is incorporated as a municipality, a majority of the population is Alaska Native and are members of the Organized Village of Saxman.

The tribe has fought against the board’s attempt to take away their rural status arguing that they have a history of traditional subsistence gathering in the area. The determination was put on hold in 2009 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar pending a comprehensive review of federal subsistence policies. That hold was scheduled to expire this past July, which meant that the Organized Village of Saxman’s opportunity to litigate would also expire.

In April, the Federal Subsistence Board voted unanimously to submit new regulations in the rural determination process. The board does not have authority to implement new regulations, but it can propose them to the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. While Connor did not give details of the proposal, he did say that the board will defer more to communities and tribes in its decision-making process.

“Once implemented the new determination process will enable the board to use more flexible criteria that could lead to the kind of determinations sought by AFN and others in cases such as Saxman in Southeast Alaska,” Connor said.

Native American Rights Fund attorney Matthew Newman represents the Saxman tribe. He says the proposed rules give residents hope, but that the outcome is still in question. While the tribe favors an administrative fix, Newman says the lawsuit won’t be dropped until they’ve had a chance to review the new rules and are satisfied with them.

“I think everyone is relieved and optimistic that the rule is going to move forward,” Newman says. “This rule moving forward is not just a good thing for Saxman, it’s a good thing for all rural communities subject to ANILCA’s priority. This rural determination process has really been a bane for many communities and this idea that every 10 years your way of life is potentially subject to change causes a very, very uneasy feeling among rural residents in Alaska.”

Deputy Secretary Connor also announced changes in the board’s makeup. Two additional public members were added, Anthony Christianson of Hydaburg and Charles Brower of Barrow. Former AFN co-chair Tim Towarak from Unalakleet was named chair of the board. Towarak has served as a president of the Bering Straits Native Corp. and as rural affairs advisor to Gov. Tony Knowles.

Connor said the Department of the Interior is working on a new process that would make it easier for communities and subsistence users to participate in the board’s decision-making process.