WHAT DID WALKER AGREE TO? Gov. Bill Walker this week finally spoke to an issue that has driven a wedge between him and an important base of support — fishers and hunters concerned about him giving away public access to Alaska lands.
After weeks of refusing to reveal details about a settlement on a key land access lawsuit, Walker is coming forward with details about a secret negotiation that is occurring between his Administration and Ahtna, Inc.
In doing so, the governor has also guaranteed Alaskans will have the ability to comment on the settlement — he has simply not said if the public comment period is before or after the deal is closed.
Must Read Alaska has learned from inside sources that the settlement does not match the language in the governor’s press release describing it.
“Recently, there has been a push to have the State cancel these settlement negotiations and go straight to trial. Because of the large amount of misinformation fueling this push, the State wants to correct the record now,” Walker said in a March 21 news release that shows his team is on the ropes on the issue.
In the release, the governor defended the out-of-court settlement that relates to what’s known as RS 2477 historic trails, specifically one that gives the public access to the Klutina Lake and state lands across land owned by the Ahtna Corporation. Klutina Lake is a popular salmon fishing spot for Alaskans across a wide swath of the state’s midsection.
The governor’s attorney general, Jahna Lindemuth, began closed-door negotiations with Ahtna to reduce the “gold standard right-of-way” of RS 2477 status to a lesser, 17(b) status, in order to resolve a lawsuit filed by Ahtna in 2009. Ahtna wants to limit access.
As the Alaska Department of Law has written, “Ahtna, Inc., the landowner whose lands are traversed by the Klutina Lake road, claims that travelers may use the road only for continuous travel. According to Ahtna, the traveling public may not make rest stops, park for any purpose within the right-of- way except for emergencies, or camp overnight within the right-of-way.”
This is in violation of RS 2477.
AHTNA HELPED WALKER’S ELECTION
Political observers will recall that Ahtna participated in a political action committee formed by Anchorage attorney Marcia Davis during the 2014 election cycle to oppose former Gov. Sean Parnell after his administration took a stand in favor of public access. The group was called “Your Future Alaska.”
Ahtna played an important role in getting Gov. Walker elected with its work with Your Future Alaska, and Davis and other organizers of the PAC eventually paid fines for concealing the source of their group’s funding, by laundering it through a nonprofit they formed. Ahtna contributed $5,000 to that group to defeat Parnell. Davis, the key person behind the group, became Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
Now, the governor is making sure Ahtna wins against the State.
“The State of Alaska and Ahtna, Inc. have been engaged in settlement discussions regarding the Klutina Lake Road near Copper Center. Ahtna sued the State in 2008 alleging trespass and the State counterclaimed to have the Court decide the existence and scope of the right-of-way. Before starting a long and contentious trial, the State and Ahtna decided to see if they could settle the case. Recently, there has been a push to have the State cancel these settlement negotiations and go straight to trial. Because of the large amount of misinformation fueling this push, the State wants to correct the record now,” Walker’s statement said.
Ahtna also issued a press release in the past 10 days:
“No part of the settlement framework would deny the public the convenient access it has enjoyed to Klutina River, Klutina Lake, and nearby State land that is accessed over Ahtna’s property. Indeed, Ahtna and the State could not agree to any such limitation without the participation of the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which has not been a party to the negotiation. The settlement would certainly not cut off access over State land, but the settlement would require recognition by the public that the desires of the majority for convenient access are not superior to the rights of property owners to control the use of their land,” Ahtna says in its release.
The Native corporation also said that it permits recreational sue on Ahtna lands for fees no higher than what is charged by the State of Alaska.
“While the State of Alaska and Ahtna have had disagreements about the specific nature and scope of easements on the Klutina Lake Road, the parties have always agreed that the public should have access to the area. Ahtna is optimistic that the settlement is part of a collaborative and cooperative spirit that will benefit its shareholders, the general public, and the State of Alaska,” the statement continues. Beyond that, however, the press release said: “Ahtna is not available for any further comment on this matter until the settlement is finalized.”
With public pressure increasing and his attorney general not making headway in her confirmation, Walker said these conditions will be met by the negotiation:
- The State will secure a 100-foot right-of-way from the New Richardson Highway to Klutina Lake.
- The State will secure a road easement to access State lands from the end of the existing road; the parties will seek termination of a narrower 17(b) trail easement that follows a similar route.
- Multiple areas along Klutina Lake Road will be designated where the public can fish and launch boats into the river. Areas will be provided for camping and overnight parking and any fee Ahtna charges must be reasonable and similar to fees charged in State campgrounds.
- The governor in the release promises that there will be an opportunity for public comment, although he stated it is not required.
- If an agreement is not reached by the end of May and the parties are not making reasonable progress on the details of a final settlement, new trial dates will be scheduled with the superior court.
- The State says settlement will not foreclose any future actions by the State to assert its rights over other rights-of-way under RS 2477
- The governor insists that any settlement of this case will relate only to Ahtna, not to like cases in the future.
On Feb. 27, Alaska Superior Court issued an Order granting a stay that was jointly requested February 24 by Ahtna and State of Alaska, which said the two parties had arrived at a tentative settlement, which would make the April 24 trial date unnecessary.
Must Read Alaska has learned that Ahtna has agreed to the final settlement, the details of which have yet to be disclosed.