Federal subsistence board reviews rural rule

Subsistence hunters on the Kenai Peninsula will soon have priority in a few more areas.

The Federal Subsistence Board, the ruling body of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Subsistence Management, published two new rules on Nov. 2. and Nov. 4, seeking to allow for more flexibility in determining which areas of the state are considered to be rural. Parts of Sterling, Fritz Creek and Anchor Point are now classified as rural and thus have subsistence priority.

The first rule reassigns some communities’ rural status, and the second rule removes the specified criteria from the determination process. In the past, rural communities adjacent to urban areas have been lumped together with them, making them ineligible for the subsistence hunting preference.

Rural designations in Alaska mean that small towns are able to take advantage of the hunting and fishing priorities on federal lands, part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The two communities removed from the non-rural list in the most recent decision, Saxman in Southeast Alaska and Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, were largely rural communities but were judged to be non-rural because of their proximity to the more urban communities of Ketchikan and the oil industry complexes.

A rule established in 2007 broadened the non-rural borders on the peninsula, removing the subsistence priority. Now, the board has ruled that those non-rural areas should return to their pre-2007 boundaries.

The new process aims to follow a “holistic” evaluation process, using data and information provided by the public, and takes into account all the characteristics of a community, not just the data and listed criteria the board has used in the past, said Theo Matuskowitz, the supervisor and regulation specialist for the Office of Subsistence Management.

“What the board asked us to do is to look at the options, whether we recommend that they go with new regulations or simply draft a policy on what the process will be,” Matuskowitz said. “And any process that would be used would automatically involve public involvement and public comment.”

The Kenai Peninsula is a particularly difficult area to classify as rural or non-rural under the current rules, according to a letter from the board to the Secretary of the Interior.

Most of the communities in the area are linked by roads. Despite other rural characteristics board determined in 1991 that the entire peninsula was non-rural.

In 2000, the board reversed its ruling, designating the entire peninsula as rural. The following year, it rescinded its decision again, returning to a non-rural designation.

The most recent ruling moved the borders back to include a section of Sterling north of the highway as rural as well as the eastern end of Fritz Creek and part of Anchor Point east of the Sterling Highway.

None of the rural determinations affect the Kenai River, but they do affect the other federal waters in the defined areas, Matuskowitz said.

“I think it would be pretty limited on the Kenai (River) as to what that would affect,” Matuskowitz said. “That’s all non-rural, further up the Kenai.”

Most of the tribes on the peninsula live near one of the coasts, which remain designated as non-rural.

Rosalie A. Tepp, the executive council chairperson for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said the tribe is in the process of reviewing what the new regulations will mean for them.

“Food security is one of the tribe’s highest concerns and we support any decision that protects traditional values and practices,” Tepp wrote in a statement. “We believe in the respectful use of land, resources and all creations. We also want to ensure that we are able to take care of ourselves and others.”

The longterm effect of the decision was that the rural determination authority was transferred from the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to the Federal Subsistence Board. Matuskowitz said this allows for more flexibility on when to review the rules and how to take into account regional differences across Alaska. What works on the Kenai Peninsula to determine when a community is rural would not work on the Seward Peninsula or on the North Slope, he said.

“Those are the things that the public disagreed very strongly with and made those views known to the secretaries,” Matuskowitz said. “They’re looking toward customary and traditional use patterns. What that specific criteria are is yet to be worked out, and I would suspect there’s going to be variations throughout the state.”

Matuskowitz said the Office of Subsistence Management is preparing a final recommendation for a determination process in January. The deadline to decide on a final rule falls in March 2017.

The rule went into effect Nov. 2, but the public can offer comments on the direct final rule non-rural list until Dec. 2.

Comments can be submitted online or mailed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Subsistence Management at 1011 East Tudor Road, MS 121, Anchorage, AK, 99503-6199.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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