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Interior Department says a new proposal could strengthen tribal representation on the Federal Subsistence Board

Salmon drying on a fish rack.
Shane Iverson
Salmon drying on a fish rack.

A proposal out Thursday, Feb. 15 from the United States Department of the Interior would add three subsistence users nominated by tribal governments to the Federal Subsistence Board, which manages fish and wildlife for subsistence use on federal lands and waters in Alaska.

Those new members would have to “possess personal knowledge of and direct experience with subsistence uses in rural Alaska, including Alaska Native subsistence uses.” According to a press release, the board chair would also “be required to have personal knowledge of and experience with rural subsistence uses.”

In 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hosted virtual listening sessions on climate change impacts on subsistence and asked how federal agencies could better cooperate with tribes. According to the Interior Department, tribal members pointed to a “need for greater Tribal representation within the federal subsistence management program.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior said that session attendees also asked that the chair of the board “possess personal knowledge and experience with subsistence uses in rural Alaska.” According to its press release, the U.S. Department of the Interior said that it’s proposing the changes to fulfill those public requests. The Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal, but according to the Federal Subsistence Board website, “Nowhere else in the United States is there such a heavy reliance upon wild foods” as there is in Alaska communities.

“A lot of people think subsistence has no value,” said Myron Naneng Sr., a member of the Federal Subsistence Board’s Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta regional advisory council. “For many of our people on the Y-K Delta, as well as throughout the state, it supplements a lot of the food that might be bought from the stores,” Naneng Sr. said.

Store-bought food, said Naneng Sr., is lacking in nutrition and can be astronomical in cost, so he welcomes the idea of adding more tribal representation to address subsistence issues throughout Alaska. “I think it’s about time,” he said. “They should have done it a long time ago because right now not every part of the state is represented on the Federal Subsistence Board.”

Currently, the Federal Subsistence Board includes eight members. Five represent federal agencies and three represent the public. The three additional seats would be held by people nominated by their local tribal governments.

“Right now there’s really no one that sits on the Federal Subsistence Board that can bring up the issues that we are having on the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, and that are also impacting the villages that are along the coast,” said Naneng Sr., who added that the salmon crisis should be a priority for the board.

“I think it’s fair to say the salmon crisis is a statewide issue,” said Jonathan Samuelson, the chair of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an organization that represents the subsistence fishing interests for 25 rural villages along the Kuskokwim River. Samuelson said that the Interior Department's proposal “gives him hope.”

“I think it can get results,” Samuelson said. “It could change the outcome of a vote or a decision made by the federal subsistence board, and change it in a way that allows for that deep understanding and knowledge to be a factor in the decision making. Because the current construct doesn’t provide a lot of avenue for that deep knowledge to get to the table.”

In an emailed statement, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola also pointed to the importance of traditional knowledge in decision making. She said that it’s “crucial to effectively managing subsistence resources, as tribes have for generations.”

There is a 60-day comment period on the proposal. According to an Interior Department official, the agency hopes to have the new seats filled by September 2024.

This story has been updated to clarify that seat appointees would be nominated by tribal communities, but do not have to be Alaska Native.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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