CONGRESS, under terms of the Alaska native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, has until the end of 1978 to make a judgment on the future use of 100 million or so acres of public land. In a markeup session a few days ago, a House subcommittee dealt with the question of subsistence resources and native peoples. Subsistence, generally defined, involves the use of those natural resources that natives have traditionally needed to secure their food and clothing.
To the pleasant surprise of many, the debate on subsistence that could have turned into a bitter and divisive standoff actually became a means of reaching an agreement that isb oth sensitive to the political realities of Alaska and fair to the natives. Both Republican Rep. Don Young, the state's only member in the House, and the Sierra Club - the chills between the two are often like a North Slope wind - praised the compromise reached by the subcommittee. It pleased Mr. Young, for example, the programs involving subsistence hunting will be controlled by Alaska's fish and game authorities; conservationists took comfort in provisions that call for oversight powers for the Interior Department. Thus, the state agencies retain their independence, but not without being accountable to the federal department charged with protecting public lands.
The subcommittee handled fairly the issue of the relationship between state officials and the natives by requiring that people in the rural areas have a voice in decisions involving fish an game. In the past, the views of Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts have tended to be overlooked. As for what other considerations are due the natives, the compromise provides more for special situations than special privileges.
For example, on those occasions when there is a scarcity of available fish and game, access to the latter would be determined by such criteria as local residency (people who live in a particular rural village would have more access rights than those in the larger urban communities) and economic dependence.
Almost a year of negotiations went into the subsistence question. The issue arose repeatedly when hearings and field trips were conducted last spring and summer throughout Alaska by Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio) and his subcommittee. The diligence of the subcommittee in going into the field has paid off, at least in the position it reached about subsistence. If the same spirit persists throughtout the rest of the debate, Alaskans will have been well served by Congress.