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Portrait of Senator Gary Wilken Session:
State Capitol, Room 514
Juneau, AK 99801-1182
Phone: (907) 465-3709
Fax: (907) 465-4714
Send E-Mail

Why a "No" on a Rural Priority

For Immediate Release: October 25, 1999
Contact: Senator Gary Wilken at (907) 465-3709.

The special legislative session is over. I was one of twenty legislators - eight senators and twelve representatives, that said "No, we should not comply with this federal subsistence law being imposed upon us."

Since returning from Juneau, Fairbanksans from both sides of the issue have asked, "Why?" I've explained that one of my fundamental responsibilities, as a legislator, is to think about how Alaska will be when my grandchildren are old enough to enjoy our state as my family does today. In regard to hunting and fishing, will Alaskans two generations from now be separated by strange lines arbitrarily drawn between us? How will my children explain that separation to their children?

This issue is not about a public vote; this is about equality among Alaskans. No matter how some have tried to spin it, the Legislature was being asked to condone setting up two classes of Alaskans, with rights given or withheld, based solely on where you live. I don't believe basic civil rights, having to do with equality among citizens, are a ballot issue and that's why I voted "no."

Over the last 2 years, I've attended seven subsistence hearings with over fifty hours of reasoned and knowledgeable testimony. I've listened to friends and lobbyists, and both urban and rural residents. I've gathered as much information as I could, and in so doing have learned a lot about ANILCA, a federal law passed in 1980 and unique to Alaska. I believe this law is both misunderstood and misrepresented to the Alaska public. And I've concluded that its constitutionality must be challenged in the United States Supreme Court.

For example, I've learned that under ANILCA:

  • Priority use is not triggered by a shortage of the resource-or by any aspect of "need." A quick look at the hunting regulations established by the Federal Board confirms this. Their regulations provide priority use for rural residents time and again-even when game populations, like the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, are at historic highs.
  • The priority is given only to rural residents of certain communities. Tok and Delta Junction have the priority, Salcha does not. All Nenana residents are rural, but if you live five miles out of Nenana, you don't get the priority.
  • A doctor living in Sitka can leave his waterfront home and hop in his Cessna 185 with his son or daughter, fly to federal land in the "40-Mile" area east of Fairbanks and hunt. But a person who lives in Fairbanks, and who spends his nights cleaning our schools, cannot. The Sitka doctor is "rural" and gets the priority, the Fairbanks custodian is "non-rural" and therefore is denied the harvest opportunity.
  • In 1989 our Alaska Supreme Court found the "rural priority" violated our state's Constitution. The court said the law's purpose, to provide basic necessities, had merit and "is an important interest. However, the means used to accomplish this purpose are extremely crude." The high court suggested using an alternate approach to accomplish the purpose. I agree, and I believe I'm in good company.

    Currently, this federal law applies on federal lands and waters - about 60% of our state. If the vote in Juneau was "Yes" to amend our constitution, then Federal law would apply to 100% of our lands and waters. Federal courts, not state courts, would ultimately enforce the laws. History shows that between 1983 and 1989, as Alaska complied with the federal law, lawsuits against the state regulations were commonplace. The state usually lost. (Bobby vs. Alaska) Is this truly state management? Or is this really just day-to-day state management until someone feels wronged and then the federal courts rule?

    While it's often claimed that amending our state constitution means returning to state management, just the opposite is true. Don't be fooled by the rhetoric and "paid for" advertising; amending our state constitution applies Federal fish and game management law, not Alaska's law. The State would be required to design regulations to match federal law which would be enforced, not in State courts, but in Federal courts. Alaska would be the only state in the Union with Federal law governing management of fish and game. And why is that? Because of ANILCA.

    Before the session began, I wrote in my web page position paper that I would "sit in a room until Christmas to hammer out a deal" - and I can honestly say I tried. But, I also said "all players must be in the room and no group will have a singular veto."

    Unfortunately, Secretary Babbitt always wielded the veto. With every version of a Constitutional amendment before House committees -- with every proposal presented by the Governor -- the driving question was "Will Babbitt accept this?"

    I could see that, in spite of our best efforts, we were not going to arrive at an "Alaskan solution," the goal toward which we as sixty-one of Alaska's leaders should strive. Perhaps it will be as simple as letting the people closest to a true resource shortage have first, and maybe the only, access to harvest. Meanwhile, I have yet to hear in 2 years of testimony that the current state system has failed those who truly need fish and game for food.

    Our governor and your legislature should be attempting to provide access to our renewable resources to those that depend on a subsistence harvest, nothing more or nothing less. We can do just that, without strange lines being drawn between us, but we must first validate the constitutionality of ANILCA, then craft legislation to reflect true subsistence access. I promise to continue to work on this effort and I call on those who have the ability to slow down this threatened expansion of federal power to do so immediately.

    # # #

    Sen. Gary Wilken has been a Fairbanksan for 43 years and has served in the State Senate since 1996. His 9/14/99 subsistence position is available on his web site at

    Gary Wilken     451-5515 ph     E-mail:

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