Moose Pass residents could be allowed to practice subsistence harvesting on federal lands, since the Federal Subsistence Board designated the town of 240 as a “rural” community.
Alaskans in federally designated “rural” communities are allowed to practice priority-use subsistence hunting and fishing on federal lands under the Federal Subsistence Management Program.
Up until now, Moose Pass was grouped with Seward in what was called the “Seward Nonrural Area.” Moose Pass residents who wanted to practice subsistence harvesting had to go through the state and couldn’t subsistence harvest on lands managed by the federal government.
Since Moose Pass is surrounded by the Chugach National Forest, that precluded residents from subsistence harvesting on most of the land around the community. In 2018, Moose Pass residents started lobbying for a regulation change.
“The easy answer, obviously, is I want to be able to hunt and fish. But it’s more than that," said Bruce Jaffa, a resident of Moose Pass since 1980. He said Moose Pass is a tight-knit, self-reliant community and grouping it with Seward was disingenuous.
“It’s a community of people who have very common interests in their love of their community," he said. "And that doesn’t mean everybody’s on the same side of the political fence. We have a fairly active split in our geopolitical house. But everybody does pull for their community.”
It’s something Moose Pass residents brought up a lot in their testimonies at the Federal Subsistence Board meetings last month. Aside from the implications for harvests, residents said it was important to them that Moose Pass was recognized as its own, rural community.
There are no firm criteria for what makes a community “rural.” The Federal Subsistence Board said it considered public testimony, harvest surveys and harvest reports in its decision to reclassify Moose Pass. Other “rural” Southcentral communities include Cooper Landing, Tyonek, Ninilchik and Hope.
The redesignation doesn’t mean Moose Pass residents can immediately practice subsistence harvesting.
“Just because they have a rural status doesn’t mean they’re actually eligible yet," said Robbin La Vine, anthropologist with the Office of Subsistence Management. "A big part of being federally qualified means that they have to be rural, first, so they’ve got that done. And then, second, they have to have their customary traditional uses of a particular resource recognized.”
To do that, the community will have to submit proposals for each resource outlining how their practices are in step with “customary and traditional use” — or, practices that have been historically used in the area.
The board will start soliciting proposals for wildlife regulation changes soon. In 2022, they’ll consider fishing regulations.
It’s a long process. But La Vine said she can tell from the materials Moose Pass submitted that a lot of work has already been done and Moose Pass residents have consistently adhered to subsistence ways of life.
“And we have really rich testimony at the public hearing that got wrapped into the Moose Pass analysis that describes the importance of wild food to the local people," she said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game did its first and only subsistence survey in the Moose Pass area in 2000 and found 92 percent of the almost 100 households it surveyed reported using harvested resources. The top resources were berries, halibut, coho salmon, sockeye salmon and moose, according to the study.
At the January meeting, Hope Roberts, of the Chugach Regional Resources Commission, said the commission supported the designation because there are members of the Qutekcak tribe, of the Seward area, who reside in the area.
“Supporting this rural determination would allow these citizens to practice their customary and traditional harvest near their home, a right denied them under current regulations,” she said at the meeting.
Fish and Game advised against the proposal. Deputy Commissioner Ben Mulligan said at the meeting the department sees bigger differences between Moose Pass and other rural peninsula communities than it does between Moose Pass and Seward.
Jaffa said you can’t completely separate Moose Pass from Seward. Many residents commute to the city for work, for example.
But he said the pandemic only strengthened the community’s sense of identity. At the beginning of the pandemic, especially, the community felt very cut off from its peninsula neighbors.
“At the same time, Moose Pass people said, ‘Where do we belong?’And I think as far as an identity, a community identity, it probably became stronger than ever before," he said. "Where I belong is in Moose Pass.”
Crown Point and Primrose, census designated places with under 100 people each, are also included in the new federal designation.