September 18th, 2013

Think About It……….                                                                                                           September 18, 2013

In all the States, navigable waters are owned and controlled by that State, except Alaska.  Most people these days do not realize what a terrible thing it is for the Federal Government to have management authority and control over all of Alaska’s navigable rivers and streams. Future revenue losses could amount to billions of dollars to the state of Alaska.

It all began with a lawsuit filed by an Athabascan native lady named “Katie John”. She wanted to fish her nets in the Copper River near Tanada Creek, southeast of Slana however, the outcome reached far beyond her fish camp. In the end, her Federal court victory in 2001 ended Alaska’s authority over its own waters.

The case was extremely convoluted and lengthy. Throughout its course, the essential question was this:  Should the federal government manage fishing on state-owned rivers and lakes in Alaska?  Katie John and her attorneys advocated greater federal authority because they believed that the federal subsistence law adopted in 1980 created a priority for rural residents.

The State had closed the area to fishing with nets and wheels in 1964 to protect salmon runs in the upper Copper River. After negotiating with Ms. John the state Board of Fisheries allowed limited fishing in 1988. With her fish camp now in a federal national park, she asked federal managers to set more liberal rules. The feds declined, saying the state was the manager of its own waters, under the Constitution just like other states.

So, Katie John sued the federal government in 1990 asserting that it had an interest in the river and therefore should provide subsistence fishing by rural residents under the federal law.  The final court decision took 11 long years to reach, and the fed’s ruled that the federal government did have management authority. The doctrine the feds approved is the idea that federal agencies ought to have some say about what happens on lakes and rivers in national parks and refuges….even if the lakes and rivers are navigable and thus owned by the state. Multiple other court decisions in case demonstrated just how squishy this doctrine and others are.

Then came Democratic Governor Tony Knowles. He told the Tanana Chiefs Conference in 2000 that “If we lose the Katie John case, we lose navigable waters to the federal government and with it Alaska’s ability to control her destiny in so many areas.” He said that he didn’t want to turn over any state property rights to federal managers: “No governor of any state, me included, can surrender this power to the federal government.”

However, in evidence of his flawed character, Knowles surrendered, and let the federal government get away with literally stealing some of our most important state rights. Knowles failed to appeal the final decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to the U.S. Supreme Court the next year.

The final court decision in the Katie John case, which Knowles failed to appeal, undermined the state’s authority over its own waters, and that is a dirty shame.

Think About It!     John C. Davis     9-18-13

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