What makes a community rural? That’s a question the Federal Subsistence Board has grappled with for years.
In past policy, the board weighed population size against factors like industrial development and infrastructure. But, ultimately, the definition of rural has been slippery in Alaska, where many communities exist outside the developed road system.
Now, the Federal Subsistence Board is trying something new. Rather than drawing a complete picture of what it means to be rural, the board wants to draw the empty space, by defining what it means to be non-rural.
The Subsistence Board’s Regional Advisory Council (RAC) for the Seward Peninsula met in Nome yesterday to discuss changes to the rural determination process — and to gather public comments. Jeff Brooks is a social scientist with the Office of Subsistence management. He described the proposed non-rural emphasis as a way to simplify the process at a local level.
“The burden of proof would not be on the community to prove that it’s rural,” said Brooks. “It would be on somebody else to prove that it’s non-rural.”
Under the proposed rule, communities that identify as rural wouldn’t have to explain why they’re rural — in fact, they wouldn’t have to explain anything at all. Only urban, or non-rural, communities would be defined for regulation purposes. And even then, the burden would be on policy makers not on community residents.
“I guess the general sense was, it’s easier to say which communities are non-rural than it is to say which communities are rural,” said Carl Johnson with the Office of Subsistence Management. He said while the board hasn’t yet developed its definition for non-rural, there will likely be less ambiguity when it comes to hub communities with larger populations — but remote.
That increased clarity may allow subsistence users in the region to breathe a little easier. After all, the distinction between rural and non-rural is no light matter — under Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act (ANILCA) — it protects a community’s right to participate in subsistence hunts.
For Marie Katcheak, the term “rural” isn’t a matter of policy at all. It’s part of her identity.
“I hold my status as a rural person. That’s something that I never want to give up. And I shouldn’t have to give up,” she told the council.
Like many, Katcheak worries about the impact of increased development in communities that rely on a rural status — and a subsistence-based way of life. While the federal managers can do little to predict an outcome, or address those fears, Brooks says he understands that “rural” is more than just a policy buzzword.
“I understand, and many people in the room do, that rural status is more than just a label. It’s tied to your identity. And it is scary for towns that see potential growth in the future,” said Brooks.
The Federal Subsistence Board will continue to collect comments on the proposed change through April 1. The next Regional Advisory Council meetings will take place in Naknek on February 24, and in Bethel on February 25.