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Alaska Federation of Natives sides with federal government in Kuskokwim salmon dispute

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Alaska Federation of Natives sides with federal government in Kuskokwim salmon dispute

Sep 27, 2023 | 10:15 pm ET
By Yereth Rosen
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Alaska Federation of Natives sides with federal government in Kuskokwim salmon dispute
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Strips of salmon are seen hanging in a smokehouse on the Kuskokwim River on July 19, 2017. The Alaska Federation of Natives is backing the federal government in its legal dispute with the state over management of subsistence salmon harvests in the river. (Photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Alaska’s largest Native organization has sided with the federal government in its dispute with the state over salmon management in the Kuskokwim River, saying that the state’s position is attacking its interests and those of its members.

The Alaska Federation of Natives on Tuesday filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit filed by the federal government over management of fishing in the Kuskokwim River, a place where salmon scarcities have produced hardships.

The lawsuit, filed on May 17, 2022, was aimed at stopping state-authorized fishing in the part of the Kuskokwim River that flows through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Federal officials had allowed only rural residents to engage in subsistence fishing there, in accordance with the rural preference rule embedded in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. But the state opened subsistence fishing there to all Alaska residents.

While the federal government scored a short-term victory in the case, quickly winning an injunction that blocked open-access fishing, the ongoing dispute has expanded to something “clear implications for the entire statewide population of Alaska Natives,” AFN said in its motion to intervene.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang points to a map of the Kuskokwim River during a Sept. 1 news conference in Anchorage on the state's legal dispute with the federal government over salmon managment there. Behind Vincent-Lang are Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor and Assistant Alaska Attorney General Aaron Peterson. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang points to a map of the Kuskokwim River during a Sept. 1 news conference in Anchorage on the state’s legal dispute with the federal government over salmon managment there. Behind Vincent-Lang are Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor and Assistant Alaska Attorney General Aaron Peterson. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

In its motion to intervene in the case, AFN said it normally stays out of regional legal disputes. However, with the state now challenging the very rural subsistence preference contained in Title VIII of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, it is “now clearly attacking the statewide interests of AFN and its members,” the motion said.

“The State’s position has therefore elevated this matter from a regional conflict to a much larger statewide issue with serious implications for all Alaska Natives, who make up the majority of rural subsistence users and for whom Title VIII was enacted to protect,” the motion said.

AFN’s motion to intervene comes about three weeks after the state filed a motion seeking a ruling that the federal government lacks authority to regulate fishing on the Kuskokwim. The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge manager’s fishing orders — which conflicted with the state’s orders and thus caused confusion — should be voided, said the state’s Sept. 1 motion for summary judgment.

The federal government’s lawsuit seeks to bar Alaska from managing its own river in a way that protects salmon runs and the people who harvest salmon, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the state’s attorney general have argued.

Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, in a declaration that accompanied the state’s Sept. 1 motion, said the federal limits on who can fish in the Kuskokwim are unfair to people who live outside those rural regions. “While much subsistence fishing is done by rural residents, some non-rural Alaskans do it too. Many Alaskans have cultural ties to rural fisheries but have been displaced to urban areas of the state for education, health, economic or other reasons. The State’s laws and regulations protecting subsistence fishing for all Alaskans ensure that individuals can return ‘home’ to practice their culture and traditions,” Vincent-Lang said in his declaration.

With its motion to intervene, AFN joins other Native organizations that have sided with the federal government in the dispute. Those include the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Ahtna Corp.