Ketchikan’s federal subsistence designation is being reconsidered

a halibut fisherman
Ketchikan High School fishing instructor Jim Castle demonstrates how to gut a halibut. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Ketchikan’s tribe wants to change the community’s designation under federal subsistence rules to give residents more access to subsistence resources. The tribe is asking to change from urban to rural status — which would apply to all 14,000 residents in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. As CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning reports, the tribe hopes that recent changes to the designation process will help it win approval.

Most communities in Alaska are designated by the Federal Subsistence Board as rural, recognizing a lifestyle that is inextricably tied to the land. But there are urban exceptions like Anchorage, Juneau and Ketchikan.

The urban communities don’t have a subsistence priority like the rest of the state. That means they have limited access to subsistence resources on federal lands.

“It’s an unfairness to the system because we’re urban,” said Tony Gallegos with the Ketchikan Indian Community. “We’re not considered to have access to those resources.”

For example, Ketchikan residents, including tribal members, can’t fish for eulachon in the Unuk River while residents from smaller nearby communities can — even though their ancestors have been harvesting the little smelt species for thousands of years.

Gallegos has been working on a proposal to change the community’s status from urban to rural through the Federal Subsistence Board.

“The tribe wants to remove impediments from their access to traditional foods that they depend upon,” Gallegos said. “And by being in a community that’s considered urban, nobody in the community has the designation of a federally recognized subsistence user, and therefore cannot hunt and fish and gather under subsistence regulations.”

The rural-nonrural status goes back to 1980 when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act or ANILCA was put into law. It designated more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska into parks, recreation areas, and refuges. And it was then that communities were labeled rural or urban.

“It’s a big deal to rescind these things,” said Brent Vickers, an anthropologist with the federal Office of Subsistence Management.

Vickers’ office will make a recommendation on the proposal next fall. He says the process to change a community’s status now takes at least four years, much longer than it used to.

That’s because public input is now a major part of the process. Until 2015, it was decided mostly by numbers — things like the average household income and the number of hotels and grocery stores in a community.

“It really didn’t have opportunities for much input,” Vickers said. “It was really just based on these kinds of quantitative metrics.”

The process changed in 2015, after complaints and a review, to a more comprehensive approach. Now, Vickers says the board considers more factors and relies heavily on the recommendations of the Subsistence Regional Advisory Councils.

“Now, the analysis will look at all sorts of things — basically painting a picture of what these communities are like, what it’s like to live in these communities,” he said.

In Ketchikan’s case, there are about 14,000 people in the borough. But it’s also isolated on an island, off-the-road system. The community has a large Indigenous population. The tribe has over 3,000 members living locally and there are residents who belong to other tribes as well.

But the rural status wouldn’t just affect tribal members. It would qualify all Ketchikan borough residents as subsistence users, no matter their background — as long as they have been a resident for one year. Wildlife officials also would be required to prioritize their needs over commercial and sport users.

Gallegos says it’s the third time the Ketchikan tribe has sought a change. But he hopes for a different result this time. He says both Ketchikan’s city and borough have passed resolutions in support of the change.

“Right now, the tribe is trying to work within the system as it’s structured with the rules and regulations that are in place, trying to see if we can go ahead and break down this barrier,” he said.

Since the designation process changed in 2015, the federal subsistence board has only considered one proposal in Alaska. That was for the community of Moose Pass near Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. It had been considered part of the urban Seward area but gained rural status in 2021.

Public hearings on Ketchikan’s rural status proposal will be held in Ketchikan Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m., and in Klawock Oct. 23 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. People can attend in person or listen by phone.

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