Landmark Subsistence Decision Stands

The Katie John lawsuit over subsistence fishing rights is finally over. The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will not review a lower court’s decision to leave standing federal rules that provide a rural subsistence priority on 60% of Alaska’s inland waters.

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Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka says it’s a victory for Natives and rural residents, who Kitka says rely on the subsistence harvest for their physical and cultural existence.

“We’re pleased with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today. This should end 19 years of litigation,” Kitka said.

She says she hopes it marks the beginning of a better relationship with state government, which, in the eyes of subsistence advocates, has aggressively fought harvest rights guaranteed in federal law.

When he announced the appeal last year, state Attorney General Michael Geraghty said the rules erode the principle that Alaskans, not the federal government, should manage their own fish and game. It was the primary reason Alaska fought to become a state. The AG’s spokeswoman, Cori Mills, said today the decision leaves in place a muddled system of dual federal-state management.

“It’s just going to continue to lead to litigation and further uncertainty to what we believe is the detriment of all Alaskans because the lines just won’t be clear,” she said.

At the heart of the long-running subsistence conflict is a disagreement between federal and state law.  A 1980 federal law says rural subsistence users in Alaska have priority rights to fish and hunt on public lands, while the state Constitution forbids discriminating between urban and rural residents. To provide the rural preference, the federal government took over fisheries management on federal land in 1999.

Heather Kendall-Miller, who represented Katie John as senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, says winning the case isn’t the end of the story, because there’s still no rural subsistence priority in areas where the state has jurisdiction.

“It’s not a complete victory for Alaska Native rural subsistence rights. That work remains to be done and probably will only be accomplished through legislation,” she said.

Ideally, Kendall-Miller says, Alaskans would amend the state Constitution for add a subsistence priority.

“The other alternative is to adopt federal legislation that would make the priority extend through all lands in Alaska,” she says.

The case began in the 1980s, when Athabaskan elder Katie John wanted to fish at a traditional fish camp on the Copper River, a spot the state had closed to fishing. John died last year at age 97. Her granddaughter, Kathryn Martin, says she’s been hearing from supporters all day on Facebook. Martin says she can imagine her grandmother’s reaction.

“She probably would’ve just (said) , ‘Finally! I’m done! No more! Good!’ “ Martin said.


Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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