Claims to Chuitna River hold no water, state tells Tyonek

Kyle Hopkins

The state commissioner of natural resources is ordering an Alaska Native corporation to stop publishing claims on a website and in brochures that it owns exclusive fishing rights to a river on the west side of Cook Inlet.

The Tyonek Native Corp. has been warning anglers that the bed of the Chuitna River is "privately owned" and that anyone walking, wading or standing in the riverbed is trespassing, according to an April 20 letter from DNR Commissioner Tom Irwin to the corporation's chief executive.

That's got to stop, and the corporation can't interfere with people who are legally trying to use the river, Irwin wrote.

Tyonek Native Corp. officials declined to comment on the letter over the weekend and on Monday.

"We have decided to focus on our response to Commissioner Irwin's letter, before commenting publicly," chief executive Tom Harris said in an e-mail.

The order strikes at a long-boiling dispute over fishing and access rights along the Chuitna, or Chuit River, about 45 miles west of Anchorage. Fish and Game describes the river as a popular sportfishing spot for king salmon, silver salmon and rainbow trout. Roughly 900 anglers fished there in 2008, according to the department.

"When the river's good, I would say there's probably 20 or 30 to 100 people fishing the lower three or four miles of the river," said Aaron Bloomquist, a guide who has worked in the area and serves as chair of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee. "It's not crowded like the Kenai streams but there's definitely people who use it."

Tyonek Native Corp., formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, owns tens of thousands of acres of land surrounding the Chuitna, according to the company. It also owns an area lodge catering to bear hunters and anglers, with a website that advertises "exclusive fishing on the lower 10 miles of this fine river."

"Because the riverbed of the Chuitna is privately owned, walking, wading or standing on the riverbed is also considered trespassing," says a Tyonek Native Corp. brochure aimed at hunters and fishermen who might want to access corporation lands. The state included the pamphlet as evidence in its letter to the corporation. It's not clear how widely distributed it is or when it was printed.

Armed guards hired by the corporation patrol the area and ward off trespassers, said 66-year-old Dennis Torrey, who operates a competing lodge along the river. He says the corporation, with its guards and trespassing warnings, is scaring off his customers.

"I have not had one booking this year for 2010 because of that. Not one booking," Torrey said. "I used to be filled up."

He clearly considers the letter from Irwin a victory. Callers to his lodge last week were greeted with a recorded message: "As of yesterday there was public access on all of Chuit River."

The village of Tyonek itself is just south of the river. This time of year, the ducks have just arrived and residents are getting ready to subsistence fish for kings, said Frank Standifer, 56.

A member of the Native Village of Tyonek council, he was born and raised in the community, where he now owns a guide service. The Chuitna is a popular river -- if you can get access to it, he said.

"We pretty much own the land on both sides of the river," Standifer said, yet the community has had trespassing problems "since day one."

People in trucks and ATVs have crisscrossed the corporation's private land, pulling down barricades. Even after the hiring of security, the intrusions continued, and Torrey is part of the problem, he said. "He's a trespasser; he's been kicked off our land a whole bunch of times and he just keeps on doing this."

To the south of the river, the corporation owns former reservation land that extends out to the middle of the water, he said, though there is limited public access through Kenai Peninsula Borough land to the north near the mouth of the river.

The ownership question hinges on whether the Chuitna is a "navigable" river. The Department of Natural Resources says it is and therefore is open to public use such as boating, fishing and wading.

But the Native corporation's brochure for hunters and fishermen says differently. The federal Bureau of Land Management is the agency responsible for such decisions and it has determined the Chuitna is non-navigable, the corporation says.

The state disputes that finding in a June 2008 report written by natural resource manager Scott Ogan, a former Valley lawmaker. Ogan writes he was able to float down a lengthy stretch of the river "with little to no difficulty" in a 12-foot raft, riding with a hydrologist and a river guide.

The DNR letter to the Tyonek corporation says that regardless of who owns the riverbed, people have a constitutional and legal right to use the Chuitna and other rivers below the ordinary high water mark.

Along with telling the corporation to "cease-and-desist" any efforts to keep people from legally using the river, Irwin ordered the corporation and lodge to "remove all references to exclusive fishing rights, including any inference of trespass on the river bed."

The state sends similar letters about access rights and ownership issues on Alaska waterways two or three times a year to lodges, guides, Native corporations and landowners around the state, said Dick Mylius, director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water.

Wade Willis, a former guide and a vocal player on the conservation side of Alaska wildlife politics, says he fishes the Chuitna River with his family. It's a clear, beautiful river in an area thick with bears that has lost popularity as the Native corporation has worked to shoo away anglers, said Willis, who knows Torrey and has been watching the dispute.

"They just basically want to have it as a private reserve for their use," Willis said. "Whether or not it's at their advantage to have a coal development, or should it turn out to where they just want to develop tourism and a fishing lodge. What better than to have a private river just 25 minutes from Anchorage?"

On the other hand, he said, the shareholders have been there for 10,000 years. "They feel they certainly have all the rights in the world to have one river that's theirs ... I would probably feel the same way."

A Dena'ina Indian community of about 170 people, Tyonek played a famous role in legal battles over Indian Country in Alaska after the village traditional council expelled two non-Native families from village housing in the early 1980s.

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