Alaska court finds for Native corporation in land dispute

·2 min read

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that permits from an Alaska Native corporation are required for members of the public to do anything but drive the Klutina Lake Road that provides access to fishing and hunting areas near Copper Center.

The recent opinion upheld lower court rulings granting the state right of way along the 25-mile road but limiting the right of way to road travel only, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Under the ruling, members of the public will need permits from Ahtna Inc. for activities such as parking, camping or launching boats from the roadside.

The legal dispute dates to 2008, when the Glennallen-based regional Alaska Native corporation sued to remove state authority over the road after the state, the prior year, cleared an area of land along the road and removed an Ahtna fee station, the opinion states.

The state took the position that a federal mining law from the 1800s allowed for a 100-foot (31-meter) public easement that provided free pullouts, camping and some river access for people who were not Ahtna shareholders. Ahtna cited another federal provision as providing a 60-foot (18-meter) easement and barring any non-emergency stops without paying a corporation access fee, which starts at $15 a day.

A 2019 settlement granted a 100-foot right of way along the length of the road, which runs from the Richardson Highway to Klutina Lake and crosses Ahtna lands. But no agreement was made on allowable public activities. State officials urged the public to follow the permitting process pending a decision by the Alaska Supreme Court.

The court, in a March 12 decision, said state attorneys misinterpreted case law in arguing the mining law allowed travel including boat launches, camping and day use.

The state is deciding whether to seek reconsideration of parts of the decision, an Alaska Department of Law spokesperson told the news outlet.

Ahtna officials in a statement said the decision was a welcome end to lengthy litigation but expressed disappointment the court rejected their defence that “aboriginal title” granted before the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act precluded the right of way.

“The Ahtna Athabascan people have used and occupied the land for thousands of years,” the statement said.

The Associated Press