By DOUG VINCENT-LANG
Now that Ahtna Inc. has formally withdrawn from the State of Alaska’s proposed settlement to the long-standing dispute over access along the Klutina River, the question is: What’s next?
During the open comment period, several outdoor and sportsmen’s groups asked the state probing questions regarding their proposed settlement on the Klutina RS 2477 right-of-way and its impact on historic access along the Klutina River and adjacent lands.
These groups also expressed concern over how this settlement might affect future access disputes involving RS 2477 access routes.
Unfortunately, few answers to these questions were provided during the open comment period, leaving many of the questions unresolved.
This lack of accountability brings into question how the State will approach future access disputes involving RS 2477 rights-of-way.
Given such uncertainty, the State must settle this issue by appealing this decision to the state’s Supreme Court.
What is RS 2477? It’s a “revised statute” enacted by Congress in 1866 to encourage the settlement of the West by developing a system of highways. RS 2477 is one phrase that gives the public access: “the right-of-way for the construction of highways across public lands not otherwise reserved for public purposes is hereby granted.”
The original grant was done informally back in 1866, and roads, wagon trails, and mining paths were all part of the web that moved people where they wanted to go across the West. Counties and states built across federal lands, and in Alaska, these trails are everywhere, and they’re grandfathered in.
Now, some of them go across the since-granted Native lands and an “Alaska exception” applies to them.
Ahtna disagrees and says it wants to limit the public access across its land — which happens to be the only access to a popular fishing ground for all Alaskans.
The issues regarding historic uses associated with this case need resolution. The history of use on this access route, as well as the legal facts, are available and substantiated. An appeal would also allow other interested groups to enter the case providing them a voice in the case.
The future of hard-won and guaranteed RS 2477 access rights is at risk without resolution of the issues in this case. The fair and equitable balance between the rights associated with a RS 2477 versus those of the land owner need to be settled.
I encourage interested parties to contact Governor Bill Walker and Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth to appeal this case and resolve these issues.
The State needs to dedicate as much effort on an appeal of this case as they did in their effort to reach a settlement on this issue.
Doug Vincent-Lang is a retired biologist who worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for over 30 years. During his tenure with the department, he served as an Assistant Director for Sport Fisheries and as the Director for Wildlife Conservation. He serves on several boards, including the Alaska Chapter of Safari Club International, the Resource Development Council, and the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska.