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Jared Diamond has written a monumental book, “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. This well researched book examines why past societies failed or succeeded and goes on to examine societies today that are struggling to cope with environmental, population, food, agriculture and forest problems. Prof. Diamond concludes by extracting patterns and lessons both historically and today that provide hope that the collapses of civilizations are choices not inevitabilities. As a bonus it’s a very readable book with tremendous educational value.

The Alaska Story

The story of Alaskan fisheries (and other Alaskan resources too) is an all too familiar story of over exploitation that parallels many of Diamond’s documented cases. The collapse of the Alaska salmon fisheries was a galvanizing force for Alaskans pursuing statehood. Alaskans desired to become a State and gain control over resource management along with many other self rule benefits. Alaskans correctly assessed that resources were managed distantly in Washington DC by government officials that had little actual knowledge of Alaska resources and under heavy influence of major businesses who benefited from short term exploitation. Federal management of Alaska resources from 1867-1959 follows the all too familiar patterns documented in Diamond’s book “Collapse”.

Alaska Fisheries Collapse and Statehood

In 1956 in Fairbanks at the University of Alaska, the Constitutional Convention was held to draft a proposed state constitution which was one of many requirements on the path to statehood. A reading of those constitutional minutes and discussion with those who are still alive that participated reveals there was an environment of idealism and thinking about the long-term was prevalent.

Alaska had the advantage of learning from all the mistakes and models of the prior 48 state constitutions. A graph of salmon fisheries and herring fisheries in Alaska illustrates that the extent of decline by 1956.

“Alaska Historical Commercial Salmon Catches (all species), 1878–2004″

“Overview of Alaska’s Herring Fisheries”

Natural Resources Section of the Alaska Constitution – Sustainability is Enshrined

The creation of Article Eight, the natural resources section of the Alaska Constitution, was a pivotal event in Alaska resource management.

Article 8 of the Alaska Constitution

The principle of sustained yield management was enshrined in the Constitution. In a democratic society governed according to the principles of law, this makes all the difference. If the right of free speech, equal protection and many other important and fundamental rights were not written into our Federal and State Constitutions the course of our history would be much different.

Section four of the natural resources article specifically defines sustained yield in the context of the overall natural resources vision for the new State of Alaska:

§ 4. Sustained Yield

Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.

A constitutional principle over the long run becomes a foundation and take off point for society. At times society, government, individuals or corporations may deviate from the constitution, but in the long run they are reeled back to those fundamental constitutional principles.

1959- Rebuilding Salmon Runs Begins

Alaska became a State in 1959 and the process of rebuilding salmon and other fisheries as sustained yield fisheries with optimum yields began. Considerable sacrifice was made in the early years. Many fisheries had total closures that lasted years. Some fisheries took several life cycles to rebuild.

Importantly over the decades a culture has grew rooted in the history of nearly wiping out salmon, the enshrinement of sustained yield in the fledgling constitution and sacrifice to rebuild the runs.

Alaska organized a Fish and Game department based on scientific principles and hired and appointed experienced scientists to run the department and manage Alaska resources.

A New Culture Grows

By the time I served in the Alaska Legislature (1973-1982) it was common for Legislators who got complaints from their constituents about the lack of fishing time from the Department of Fish and Game to tell the constituent the Legislature had no jurisdiction and they should go to the Board of Fisheries. The prevailing ethic and culture became “we don’t politicize the fish and game management”. Legislators came to selfishly realize that delving into fish and game management and allocation issues was actually a Pandora’s box and once opened Legislators would be inundated with endless requests by constituents to change the rainbow trout quota, allow more moose to be taken and so on.

The Natural Resources Section of the Constitution was a beginning that created a culture that focused on sustaining the fisheries first as the underlying principle and value of society. The political fights now focus on allocation between fishermen groups, but this is subservient to the accepted ethic that first the resource is preserved by allowing adequate escapement.

Many times in the last four decades user groups have sued the government over excessive restriction of fishing. Time after time the Supreme Court has defended the right of scientific management of the fisheries by the Alaska Fish and Game Department. The Board of Fisheries which is a politically appointed group from the user community has taken many controversial stands to restrict or close fisheries on the basis of conservation and sustainability. When they did not, private suits in court based on the Constitutional provisions in Article 8 got the system back on track.

Alaska Fisheries Change – the Track Record

The State of Alaska implemented many new policies and institutions since statehood that were aimed at sustainability (as well as other social and economic goals):

– Commercial Fisheries Entry Act 1973-limited the number of fishermen (salmon, dungeness crab, herring)
– Comprehensive Salmon Rebuilding Program-1976 – goal of 100 M more salmon in two decades was met
– Magnuson Stevens Act – 200 mile limit-Alaskans pushed extensively for this act
– Non-profit salmon hatcheries were implemented with $ 200 M of state loans and fishermen assessments
– Individual Fishermen Quota systems for halibut, salmon, pollock and Bering Sea crab were devised

The importance of a Constitutional provision is that when the all powerful government or other powerful interests in society deviate there is the ability of the citizenry to sue and enforce the Constitution. This is a big hammer and over time the hammer is used less and less as a societal culture consistent with the Constitutional provisions grows embedded.

Constitutional principles are our statement of long term versus short term. As “Collapse “ points out the focus on what is beneficial in the short run is what gets mankind in trouble. If we do not understand and value the long term impact of our activities on this planet we or our progeny will pay a steep price.

Lessons From the Alaskan Experience Corroborate Jared Diamond

Eventually Alaskans after meeting success in rebuilding salmon and other fisheries gained pride in their accomplishments. This pride created a positive feedback loop to jealously guard the hard won success of rebuilding natural resources. With the same constitutional foundation Alaska has been able to maintain sport fisheries and game resources. Timber has been a different story. Control of most of the valuable forests by the US Forest Service has dictated a similar history to continental national forests.

One of Jared Diamond’s conclusions is the importance of the regulatory role of government fueled by citizen support to ensure that resources are managed wisely for long term sustainability. A constitutional principle is the ultimate “regulation” and provides the maximum guarantee that powerful interests and the passion of the moment will not over ride society’s need to protect itself for the long term.