ANCHORAGE — Gov. Tony Knowles said Monday that he would not appeal a federal ruling that upheld the right of rural Alaskans to continue subsistence hunting and fishing on most Alaskan waters.
Knowles' decision ended a 10-year legal fight that had pitted states' rights advocates against Alaska's rural residents and the federal government.
"We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans," Knowles said at a news conference.
The feud stemmed from conflicting state and federal laws. A 1980 federal law requires that rural Alaskans be given priority access to the state's fish and game. But Alaska's Constitution guarantees all residents equal access to the state's resources.
Knowles said even a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court would have done little to change the balance of power.
"Even winning that case would have returned only a small portion of federal fish and game management to state hands," Knowles said.
The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May came after a lawsuit filed in 1991 by Athabascan Indian elders who were denied the right to set up a subsistence fish camp. They sued the Interior Department, asking the department to force the state to allow the camp.
The Alaska Federation of Natives was pleased by the governor's decision.
"We think it's a step in the right direction," said Nelson Angapak, the federation's executive vice president. "The governor must take steps to protect the subsistence rights of people living in Alaska, both native and nonnative."
A year and a half ago, Knowles, a Democrat, said that he planned to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Advocates of an appeal said the governor was obligated to defend the state constitution.
"I am saddened and disappointed that the governor was unable to keep his word to the people of Alaska," Republican state Sen. Robin Taylor said.