WHITHER THE KLUTINA ROAD
The Walker Administration is negotiating behind closed doors to cut off public access to one of the most popular and unique fishing, hunting and recreation resources in Alaska, the Klutina Lake area.
It is a move that is sure to dismay tens of thousands of Alaskans for whom the area is a deeply important part of their outdoor traditions.
The Klutina Road on the north side of the Richardson Highway runs from near Copper Center to the Klutina Lake area, and uses an historic easement across land owned by Ahtna, Inc.
It’s a road used since Statehood to access salmon country. Thousands upon thousands of Alaskans have traveled to the shores of Klutina Lake, and brought home millions upon millions of omega-3-rich protein from its waters.
Part of a mining road that went from Copper Center to Valdez, it crosses through a lush boreal forest along a legendary river.
Alaskans fish for king and red salmon, arctic grayling and dolly varden in a place where they can launch their boats and do what Alaskans love to do: Catch dinner. It’s a place so important that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has online pages dedicated to it.
It’s a special sportsman’s paradise to which Gov. Bill Walker is cutting off access.
Through Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, it appears that the Walker Administration is going behind closed doors to negotiate a right-of-way settlement with Ahtna Corporation, which has challenged a 150-year-old historic trail designation.
RS-2477 is a law passed in 1866 that designates all wagon trails, foot trails, pack trails, and mining roads as official state rights of way. It’s how Alaskans get across federal and state lands and also Native land, and includes iconic places such as the Iditarod trial and much of the Yukon Quest route.
Ahtna wants to downgrade the right-of-way designation from RS-2477 to a lesser 17-B, which would greatly diminish access for Alaskans. A 100-foot right of way would become a 50-foot right of way.
Drivers could not park, camp, or launch boats in the river. In other words, the State government, which has fought for RS-2477 standards for years and has called the area the textbook case of RS-2477 law, is downgrading the public’s access from a gold standard to tin.
The Alaska Outdoor Council is strongly objecting, but most hunters and fishermen have no idea that Walker is selling them down the proverbial river behind closed doors.
The terms of the negotiated settlement have not been made public. But if Walker goes down this road on the Klutina, as the legal documents indicate he is doing, all other landowners affected by RS 2477s could face the same fate — negotiate, settle for cash, or fold and cut off access to all but Native corporation shareholders.
On Feb. 27, 2017, Alaska Superior Court issued a stipulated motion for stay, which states, “Ahtna, Inc. and the State of Alaska are pleased to report a tentative settlement of this long-running dispute.” The order then cancels the April 24, 2017 trial date and says, “The parties will work to finalize the settlement and obtain necessary client approvals within the next 90 days.”
That sidesteps all public process for giving up State sovereignty over legal rights-of-way.
THE ALASKA OUTDOOR COUNCIL AND ALASKA’S HISTORIC TRAILS
Congress granted states and territories rights-of-way over federal lands in the Mining Law of 1866, with the exception of military land and reservations. Covered under the law are foot trails, pack trails, sled dog trails, wagon roads, mail routes, and other seasonal or permanent public access.
The Organic Act extended general land laws to the territory in 1884. Up until 1968, when the Secretary of the Interior issued Public Land Order 4582, “the land freeze,” to allow for settlement of Alaska Native land claims, these historic rights-of-way were established to help citizens access public resources, including lands and waters.
When Congress then repealed the 1866 law in 1976, it preserved all pre-existing rights-of-way for public access.
In 1998, Alaska Statute 19.30.400 defined the States’s rights and responsibility to assert and manage these public rights-of-way for all Alaskans, and ordered “every effort” be made to minimize effect on private property owners while protecting public rights to use the historic access.
The mining trail from Valdez to Copper Center is part of the 1898 Gold Rush transportation system of camps and staging areas along the Klutina River. By 1960, a road was constructed and maintained by the state.
State law asserts that the RS 2477 road is 100-foot wide, historically used for activities related to transportation such as parking, stopping, camping, and accessing other public lands and waters, and includes numerous side trails and camping sites established prior to land conveyance to Ahtna, Inc.
The Bureau of Land Management issued an interim conveyance to Ahtna, Inc. in 1980, reserving a 60-foot easement along the road and a 24-foot trail easement for the trail toward Valdez, where it crosses Ahtna land.
Ahtna sued the State in 2008, saying the road is not an historic trail. Ahtna has this list of demands that the State is now bargaining away behind closed doors:
- Limit the State’s authority to maintain, repair, and improve the road and rights-of-ways only
with Ahtna, Inc. approval
- Cash payment for public trespass on Ahtna land
- Limit width of the 100-foot easement to 60 feet or less based on usage
- No parking, rest areas, or accessing the Klutina River or other public land
- Terminate the RS 2477 designation wherever it overlaps the 17(b) easement so public uses of the road are
subject to federal regulations rather than State law
In 2013 Athna wrote, “Ahtna has made a good faith effort to settle the dispute with the State in order to preserve the Klutina drainage, but each attempt has failed because the State refuses to place any limitation on the expansive scope of its claimed RS 2477 ROW and associated recreational amenities.”
Previous governors have upheld the State’s public trust to preserve access to longstanding recreational areas, but it appears that Gov. Walker’s Administration is now on a clear path to yield State sovereignty to the federal government, tribes or other entities whenever he faces a legal challenge.