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Alaska’s regional subsistence councils hamstrung by stalled appointments

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A large number of unfilled seats on the councils that manage Alaska’s subsistence hunting and fishing has left advocates worried their voices won’t be heard and confused about the process of filling those seats.

The decisions for opening and closing hunting grounds and setting harvest limits are decided by the more than 100 Alaskans who sit on 10 regional advisory councils that inform the Federal Subsistence Board.

“They’re the ones that are on the ground and making these observations based upon a lifetime of experience,” said Jim Fall, who until recently was the state’s head of subsistence research.

He recently retired from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game after 39 years of service. And he’s been to a lot of these council meetings where a wide-ranging group from across a region have frank and full discussions about the state of wildlife populations, fish stocks and observations about what’s happening in their communities.

“The broader representation you have at a regional council, the better those ideas are,” Fall said.

But this year there are going to be fewer voices at the table. That’s because more than half of the seats are now unfilled.

It’s not due to a lack of interest. The federal Office of Subsistence Management said it dutifully forwarded enough names last fall to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

“We still have 35 open seats on all RACs, which means that 56% of 2020 open seats were not filled,” wrote Office of Subsistence Management Acting Policy Coordinator Katya Wessels in a recent briefing to the Federal Subsistence Board. “Some RACs now have as many as eight open seats.”

Many of those whose appointments were stalled are long-serving members.

Until the end of last year, Don Hernandez has chaired the Southeast Regional Advisory Council. His reappointment has been inexplicably held up and he’s gotten no explanation.

“Either they’re not telling us or they don’t know,” Hernandez said from his home in Point Baker on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island. “So we don’t even know who to call.”

That leaves the Southeast’s 13-seat regional advisory council with five members.

“That’s just not a real good representation for all of the different issues that we have here in Southeast Alaska,” he said. “So it’s going to be really tough to get anything done at this next meeting, I’m afraid.”

It’s not just Southeast that’s struggling to fill seats. The Western Interior regional council stretches across a large chunk of landlocked territory from Aniak on the Kuskokwim River to the Brooks Range.

“It’s a huge area, it’s like multiple states,” said Jack Reakoff, who lives in remote Wiseman, a former mining camp roughly halfway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. He was on the board from its inception in 1993. But not anymore; his reappointment was inexplicably held up on the eve of the spring meeting later this month.

“They’re going to be completely overwhelmed for this meeting,” he said.

It’s not clear who or what is responsible for the breakdown in appointments. A Trump administration executive order signed in mid-2019 directed federal agencies to reduce or eliminate advisory boards considered obsolete, duplicative or expensive.

But what is clear is that the Trump administration’s Interior Secretary chose not to fill 35 seats late last year. The recent change in presidential administrations has added yet another layer of uncertainty with people in the federal agencies scrambling for answers.

The Interior Department headquarters in Washington D.C. declined to comment.

The Office of Subsistence Management is soliciting nominations now, but it’s a year-long process. And applicants who file by the February 15 deadline likely won’t be seated until 2022.

There have long been tensions between the rights of rural subsistence hunters and the state over priority for rural subsistence users. Some of those conflicts have recently wound up in court.

Reakoff said there are political actors who have long been hostile to subsistence rights that would cheer the dismantling of the regional advisory councils.

“Rural subsistence priorities have never been palatable to the state of Alaska,” he said.

Rick Green, an assistant in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Commissioner’s Office, said the state is neutral on the stalled nomination process.

“That is their process to carry out,” Green wrote in a statement to CoastAlaska. “As for their public meetings, yes, there is value to state managers as they bring parties interested in conservation of our resources together for public comments and suggestions and any group that brings the public together for the shared goal of conservation of our trust properties is useful.”

Subsistence priorities are enshrined by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The landmark legislation signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 expanded national parks and monuments in Alaska but also guaranteed Alaskans have some decision making authority over subsistence rights on federal lands.

“The regional advisory councils are kind of the linchpin of the whole system,” Hernandez said. “Having good functioning, well-qualified advisory councils is the key to make the whole subsistence system work in Alaska.”

But whether the lack of appointments is due to bureaucratic inefficiencies or political wrangling, the outcome will be the same — less input on federal wildlife management decisions by the people whose lifestyle and livelihood depend on it.

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