By DOUG VINCENT-LANG
Congress mandated that traditional access across federal lands be guaranteed for future generations.
This was done by congressionally established rights of way, called RS2477s, across federal lands. In Alaska, these RS2477 rights of ways were maintained, even after lands were transferred to Native groups and other entities. The Alaska Legislature recognized the importance of maintaining these right of ways by mandating that they be identified and protected.
One such right of way is the Klutina RS2477. The Klutina Lake RS2477 road runs southwesterly from Copper Center approximately 25 miles to the mouth of Klutina Lake, generally following the Klutina River. This right of way traverses Ahtna Native corporation lands.
Ahtna is the owner of most land underlying the road right-of-way and most lands adjacent to the road (landward of the ordinary high water mark).
The people of Alaska — as represented by the State — are owners of the land below the ordinary high water mark of the Klutina River and Klutina Lake. The Klutina RS2477 is important for fishing, hunting, boating, and other outdoor activities that occur from many locations along the road, and has been for generations of Alaskans.
Since 2008, Ahtna and the State have had significant disputes concerning this right of way and its uses in the past and have been engaged in litigation regarding ownership and public use of Klutina Lake Road. The dispute underlying the lawsuit, however, has been ongoing since at least 1999. This summer, the State proposed a settlement to this dispute and lawsuit.
Issues in the proposed settlement affect access to, and opportunities for, traditional uses of public lands and waters, such as hunting and subsistence. Without reasonable access to public lands and waters, hunting, fishing and other activities is seriously jeopardized. This is why the settlement the State is proposing regarding this RS2477 is critical.
Significant issues are raised with this proposed settlement. For example, can the people of Alaska continue to use the right of way as it has traditionally been used for including parking, boat launching and camping?
The answer is that the proposed settlement severely limits these uses. It bans overnight parking and camping, and limits boat launching to two sites. It also bans other uses such as berry picking. It also limits the state’s ability to address what it can do if the right of way is affected by natural erosion events.
The State has put its proposed settlement agreement out for public review. Unfortunately, critical materials were not available to inform the public’s decision regarding this settlement. These materials need to be provided and sufficient time needs to be made available to review them.
Given this, the State should extend the comment period. Also, the State should consider briefing the Legislature on this issue, given past Legislative interest and actions on these rights of ways. The State should not be afraid to slow this process down to ensure a good outcome, given that this settlement may form a precedent on how the State deals with future settlements of RS2477 rights of ways.
This issue is not about trespass rights onto adjacent private lands. People using the right of way need to know where private lands begin and respect the rights of the land owners, including the right to prohibit or restrict trespass or use or to charge a fee for use.
Rather, this issue is about what can occur on a state maintained and operated right of way paid for using state dollars.
I encourage readers to research this issue. Materials can be found on the Department of Law web site. Unless the State extends the comment period, the public comments are due by Aug. 30.