Whether it’s spending summers fishing for salmon or hunting deep in the woods to fill freezers, Alaskans understand the important role that natural resources play in their ways of life. In turn, the state of Alaska has one of the most participatory systems in the nation for managing fish and wildlife. Citizens across the state can propose regulations and changes to local Regional Advisory Councils (RAC) who make recommendations to a board of Federal land management representatives, Indigenous community leaders, and public stakeholders who vote on implementing them. This is democracy in action, but it only works if people are involved.
For over five years, the University of Alaska Southeast has partnered with the Sitka Conservation Society and the USDA Forest Service to offer a dual enrollment high school class that teaches students about these management processes. This class is offered to all three local high schools: Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Pacific High School, and Sitka High School. As part of this class, students attend Southeast RAC and Federal Subsistence Board meetings where they learn experientially how one can effectively navigate this system, as well as amplify the concerns and needs of their local communities.
During this spring’s class, students learned about the Federal Subsistence Board, the public process, and the many different nuances, organizations and stakeholders involved. They also spent time sharing the unique resources and experiences of one another’s home communities, the issues that mattered to them and their communities. and recognized the powerful impact that their voices and perspectives can bring to these processes and regulations. The class culminated in students attending the 2022 Federal Subsistence Board meeting held during April 12th through the 15th, tuning in remotely from a classroom on the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus.
Leading up to, and during the week of the meeting, the class had opportunities to meet with community members and leaders who were directly involved in these processes, along with advocates and harvesters passionate about subsistence rights, including Harvey Kitka (Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Southeast RAC), Cathy Needham (Southeast RAC, KAI Environmental), Marina Anderson (Sustainable Southeast Partnership), writer and organizer Julian Brave Noisecat, Lauren Mitchell (Advisory Panel to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council), Jack Reakoff (Western Interior RAC chair), Andrew Thoms (Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Advisory Committee to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game), Don Hernandez (Southeast RAC chair), Tad Fujioka (Sitka Advisory Committee), Katie Riley (Sitka Conservation Society) and Rob Cross (US Forest Service Subsistence Fisheries Biologist). “Everyone who stopped and met with the class helped provide them with a better understanding of how these procedures work and how they make an important impact on our Alaskan communities,” says Heather Bauscher, an adjunct professor for the course. Bauscher teaches the class with Jan Straley, Professor of Marine Biology at UAS, and works as the Tongass Community Organizer at Sitka Conservation Society and serves as chair of Sitka’s Fish & Game Advisory Committee. “There was a lot of eagerness to share and excitement expressed for youth participating in and learning about this process.”
Because Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a public boarding school, is one of the participating schools in this course, students’ home communities range from Southeast to Northwest Alaska. “Having state-wide representation brings a much deeper level of richness to this class,” says Bauscher. “The sharing of different traditional practices and cultures, as well as biological knowledge, was really valuable for everyone. It was amazing to have students speak to the issues they hear about, explain it with the class, and share how it affects them and their communities.”
Why is this class and participation in the Federal Subsistence Board important? The best way to understand this question is to speak directly with the youth involved with it this year. The following are reflections from students after attending the virtual Federal Subsistence Board meeting in April 2022.
Ardel Wikinson, Sitka:
Because there are so many challenges across the state, with each one being detailed in its uniqueness and adversity, I think it’s necessary to maintain a complex board structure. Therefore, I believe the current process is well structured. One way to improve this process would be to have members on the Federal Subsistence board with a deeper understanding of biological ecosystems and natural cycles. It is clear to me that continued management should include both individuals of the western science community and members who actively participate in a subsistence lifestyle.
The influence that public individuals have on this process in its entirety is quite large. I would stress the importance of public participation in the federal subsistence process as it is the only accurate way for public issues to be heard and addressed by the board and its members. It is imperative that citizens exercise their right to speak out on matters affecting them so they can maintain that right for future years and issues.
Nathan Cleveland, Quinhagak:
People in my region hunt for moose and they go out by boat. We enjoy subsistence foods like salmon, moose, caribou, birds and seals. These foods are important because this is how we feed big numbers of people in our communities, we rely on it. It is important to continue this practice into the future because otherwise meat becomes rare and expensive in the stores. In the Y-K Delta (Yukon-Kuskokwim) these practices have been around for thousands of years. Regulations impact these resources by creating limitations which are important so that we don’t overharvest a resource. We don’t want to take more than we need because if we do, some of it or most of it could go to waste.
Representatives have expressed themselves and they want things to be noticed and improved. From virtual meetings to hunter safety and ethics, from low salmon returns to needing more funding for science and data. When someone brought up low salmon returns, I knew what was being said because I could relate to the issue. In the YK Delta area, the salmon population has decreased. I remember being younger than I am and catching more than 120 salmon in our drift net, now it’s just different, we catch about 70 to 80 salmon. All of those issues have been around recently and now these organizations are on the topic of them.
Clare Jungers, Shishmaref:
It is hugely important to participate in the public process because whatever the board votes will surely affect one’s community and surrounding locations. A person’s input is greatly weighted in the decision-making of whether a proposal will come to life or not. Listening to the meeting was a great experience. It allowed me to listen in on the process and has educated me about how important these meetings are, and has given me a feel as to what it is like to be a part of the board. I learned how the position of each of the members helps in the decision-making process of which way a proposal may go. The debates about why a proposal should either be passed or deferred impact the voter turnout by causing board members to put more in-depth thoughts on the impacts that this proposal may cause. I feel like everyone in Alaska should learn at least a little bit about the Federal Subsistence Board process so that they can better understand how they are affected by it.
Although I do believe that this is a strong and effective process for introducing and deferring proposals, I do feel like there should be more Indigenous native people on the Federal Subsistence Board. People from rural communities in my opinion are impacted the most by the regulations made by the board. I also feel that input from subsistence users should be prioritized because they are the people who greatly depend on the land. The lands throughout rural Alaska are our main food source and without them, I don’t know what subsistence users would do. People also need to understand the process of introducing a proposal so that they can make the change that they want to see in Alaska regarding hunting and fishing regulations.
Nachama Voluck, Sitka:
I think this process is as effective as it can be with the level of organization and abundance of disagreement present. Although it couldn’t hurt for them to get more organized, the system can always improve. These kinds of issues will not be easily agreed upon. There are a number of subsistence concerns and there is always room for more people to make change. There is also corruption within the system. Because of this it is important to have people who provide a knowledgeable and positive influence on the system in which we depend on to handle our subsistence resources.
There is a need for board members, biologists, and anyone involved in this process to acknowledge and utilize traditional and ecological knowledge. Acknowledging and supporting these aspects of the process can help us better understand the issue at hand and make the right decision. A lot of the time people from the public won’t trust or understand the science behind something but it helps give the full picture. On the other hand, board members may not trust traditional and ecological knowledge, but that also helps give the full picture. It helps explain why and how subsistence users rely on their resources. We need to bring these two ways of thinking together in order to see the full picture and in turn make an informed decision.
This experience has been eye opening for me. I decided to take this class to expand my horizons and learn more about subsistence in Sitka and around Alaska. I’m taking away not only further knowledge of subsistence, but connections to all sorts of people and I did exactly what I came here to do. I understand the process better and I am aware of a small portion of the issues appearing throughout Alaska. That is a small step to take toward better understanding the subsistence world and process in which we manage it.
The power of public participation
Before the first meeting of the Federal Subsistence Board started, Professor Jan Straley had a few words to share with the students. “As young people, you have a lot more power than you realize,” she said. “If more people like you were participating at these meetings when I was your age, subsistence resource management would be done a lot differently.”
Alaska’s complex relationship with fish and wildlife merits an equally complex management process. In turn, consistent public participation and input are integral for these management systems to reflect the diverse needs and priorities of Alaska’s people. Programs like this UAS course helps young people get involved in managing the resources they depend upon, and cultivates their skills and confidence for participating in this important process. The reflections from youth participants stresses the need to better integrate Indigenous values, priorities, and knowledge into decision making. One way of working toward that goal includes catalyzing more public participation in the process. Another way, as mentioned by the students, is to cultivate more subsistence, rural, and Indigenous representation on the board itself. Participants look up to the Federal Subsistence Board and management systems across Alaska to do their diligence in meeting community needs and ensuring equitable and accessible systems are in place for garnering input. As this spring’s students have stressed, the future of their ability to sustain themselves on healthy and abundant lands and waters rests in these leaders’ hands.
“We are so lucky here in Alaska to have generations who carry a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience all across the region,” says Bauscher. “One of the most important outcomes of these classes is connecting Alaskan youth to this process and helping ensure that the next generation of leaders and decision makers include the ones who know this place best.”
If you are interested in the fish and wildlife management processes here in Alaska, there are many ways to get involved from the federal to local level, starting with attending your regional advisory council meetings to learn more about issues affecting species your community relies upon. You can also apply, or encourage someone who you believe would be a strong voice of representation for their region to apply, to join one of the many regulatory bodies focused on the management of fish and wildlife resources, such as your local advisory committee to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the Southeast RAC.
• Ryan Morse is the Communications and Outreach Coordinator at the Sitka Conservation Society, a founding member of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.