Obama seeks changes in Alaska hunting, fishing oversight

The Obama administration is launching a rapid, sweeping review of the way the federal government manages subsistence hunting and fishing in Alaska, Interior Department officials said Friday.

"The system, frankly, today is broken," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in a video shown at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention in downtown Anchorage.

Subsistence rights -- the battle over who gets the first opportunity to hunt and fish on state or federal land -- is a headline issue at this year's convention. For decades, the debate has pitted rural Alaskans and Alaska Natives, who say they hunt and fish to survive, against sports groups and urban hunters and fishermen, who argue everyone should have equal access to fish and game.

The state makes hunting and fishing rules across Alaska. But the feds regulate subsistence on federal lands, creating a confounding, overlapping system.

In contrast to the state Constitution, a 1980 federal law guarantees rural Alaskans priority when it comes to subsistence. Some Alaska Native leaders say the feds haven't done enough to protect that right, and are proposing a resolution at the convention today that calls for broad changes to subsistence management.

AFN leaders met with Interior officials at least twice in the past four months, outlining some of those requests, said state Sen. Albert Kookesh, an AFN co-chairman who praised Friday's announcement.

"We couldn't have asked for more," he said.

Gov. Sean Parnell couldn't be reached for comment Friday afternoon. Parnell served as lieutenant governor to Sarah Palin before inheriting the job in July. Palin opposed a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing. Parnell's rural affairs adviser, John Moller, answered an interview request with an e-mail:

"The administration is interested in hearing more about the suggested federal review," he wrote. "We plan to take an active role in the review and look forward to hearing details on what changes the federal government believes would make the existing dual-management system more workable."

In a statement explaining Friday's announcement, the Interior Department said subsistence is vital to the physical and spiritual culture of Alaska Natives, and federal oversight needs to be retooled to better meet the needs of Native communities.