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Alaskans Square Off Over Hunting, Fishing Privileges : Legislature: Native organizations argue that people living outside cities deserve special rights. Lawmakers are meeting to untangle the issue.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Luke Sampson, an Inupiat Eskimo from the arctic coastal village of Kotzebue, would have preferred to be home this week, hunting beluga whales from an open boat in the Chukchi Sea. Instead, he has been spending his days 1,000 miles away in the state Capitol, sitting through legislative hearings and patroling statehouse hallways.

“They need to know how important our way of life is,” said Sampson, a part-time local government bureaucrat. Like many people in rural Alaska, he supports his family through a mixture of cash jobs and living off the land and water--everything from whale, caribou and salmon to berries picked by the bushel from the tundra.

“It’s how people in the villages survive,” he said.

Sampson is one of many voices being heard here this week as the state Legislature debates a question that has split Alaskans for the past three decades--should some residents have more hunting and fishing rights than others?

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In a state where thousands of far-flung residents head off into wilderness the way many Americans go to the grocery store, and where cities are filled with recreational hunters and fishermen, the debate has been loud and passionate.

On one side are the state’s largest native organizations, representing Alaska’s 80,000 Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts. They argue that people living outside Alaska’s cities, particularly natives, deserve special subsistence hunting and fishing rights, including longer seasons, higher bag limits and first crack at fish and game in times of shortages.

“It’s the core of these people’s existence,” said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

On the other side are the National Rifle Assn. and a variety of statewide hunting and fishing organizations, who argue that city dwellers should have the same access to fish and game and people in villages.

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“The story in Alaska is that everybody else has won--big oil, big money, big environmental groups--and the sportsmen have taken it in the pants,” said Rupe Andrews, the Alaska field representative of the NRA. He and others believe the state could change laws to give people in cities equal access to natural resources without hurting those in the villages who depend on fish and game.

The Legislature was called into special session this week by Gov. Steve Cowper to try to untangle an increasingly complicated web of court decisions and mandates from the federal government on the issue.

Until last year, state law had a system of allowing people in rural areas to have special rights. But a group of Anchorage-area sport hunters filed a lawsuit contending the law denied them the chance to live subsistence lifestyles, and the state Supreme Court agreed, ruling the law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against city residents.

Cowper, a Democrat, supports special rural rights and wants to amend the state constitution to allow them.

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“It’s the right thing to do,” Cowper said. “That’s one of the values in Alaska that we treasure, that if you opt to live in the rural areas of Alaska, then by all rights, since you’re not living in the cash economy, that you should have the first cut at the resources out there.”

But opposition has been fierce, especially from legislators representing Anchorage, Fairbanks and other communities with large numbers of sport hunters. The outdoors groups insist they are not trying to deny anyone the opportunity to live off the land, only that everyone should have the same chance.

There have not been many direct conflicts between sportsmen and natives, but the number of clashes has been growing. Last year, a federal court gave natives the right to put a subsistence net in the Kenai River, which attracts sport fishermen from throughout the world hoping to hook giant king salmon.

A group of sport fishermen, afraid the net would cut into their fishery, cruised by the net waving rods and nets in the air in protest. A group of native commercial fishermen were arrested last summer for allegedly threatening a group of out-of-state sport fishermen at gunpoint, claiming they were taking fish to which natives were entitled.

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Clouding the whole matter is the fact that more than 60% of Alaska is federal land--representing half of all the federally owned land in the nation. And federal law requires special subsistence rights for rural residents in Alaska, and the takeover of fish and game management on federal lands if the state doesn’t guarantee it.

The Department of Interior is scheduled to take over game management on all federal land here on Sunday, creating two separate sets of hunting rules. At first, federal policy will not be appreciably different from the state, and Washington is leaving fish management in state hands for the time being. But Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. has said an entirely new management scheme will eventually be developed, one that the governor and the state’s congressional delegation believe will be far more restrictive for everyone involved.

The sport hunting groups, meanwhile, filed another lawsuit last week, contending the federal law discriminates against them, and they want the state to sue, too. Legislators representing rural areas say such a suit would be an insult to natives, and lawmakers have been fighting about the issue all week.

By Thursday, an unusual coalition was emerging, with at least two oil companies and other powerful industries here--who often work in partnership with native-owned corporations--joining natives such as Sampson in lobbying in favor of the rural preference. They’re supported by the state’s Republican congressional delegation.

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