Alaska News

Battle over access to remote road sends ripples all the way to Juneau

A rough road leading to a remote lake near Copper Center is at the center of a potential legal settlement that's inflamed Alaska's battle over public access and Alaska Native lands, and even trickled into a confirmation hearing at the Alaska Capitol.

The Alaska Department of Law earlier this month announced final settlement negotiations were proceeding on a 2008 lawsuit filed by Ahtna Inc. that seeks to remove state authority over the Klutina Lake Road. The possible settlement was first reported by former Alaska Republican Party spokeswoman Suzanne Downing on her conservative news website Must Read Alaska.

Thousands of summer visitors looking to fish, raft or camp near the lake in the Chugach Mountains venture up a trail once followed by Valdez miners that starts at the Richardson Highway and ends at a small public access at the lake.

The Ahtna lawsuit has been a point of contention in Alaska's public land sovereignty fight for years. The road is one of many the state claims under a federal law dealing with unreserved federal public land. If Ahtna prevails, the federal government would take over on behalf of Ahtna.

The Klutina Lake Road stretches more than 20 miles and crosses Ahtna land on what the state contends is a 100-foot public easement established under the "historic uses" provision of a 19th-century federal mining law.

Ahtna argues the public easement should be only 60 feet wide and rule out any stops besides emergency ones without paying an access fee: no free pullouts, no free public camping and no free Klutina River access at a popular and reasonably safe put-in on the fast-moving water about 14 miles up the road — before it gets really rough.

Ahtna, a Glennallen-based Alaska Native corporation with more than 1,700 shareholders, currently charges non-shareholders at least $15 a day for parking, fishing or other access on its lands.


Settlement concerns

Word the state is moving to settle rather than let a judge decide is setting off some alarms.

The historic use of the road by thousands of miners on the sometimes-deadly "All American Route" up and over the Valdez Glacier makes the Klutina road "one of the strongest cases we had in the state," said Scott Ogan, a former state senator who worked for an Alaska Department of Natural Resources unit involved in the litigation.

That the state's settlement proposal isn't available to the public or politicians is also rankling legislators and some locals.

"I'm very upset about this, as I think anybody who has any interest in it should be," said Alan LeMaster, the longtime outfitter for Copper River Salmon Charters and a Gakona resident who puts in at a spot along the road he argues is public and therefore free to access. "What's really wrong about this is they're doing this undercover. They're not transparent."

Former Ahtna president Ken Johns, who is not personally involved in settlement negotiations but served when the lawsuit was filed, said he doesn't understand the level of opposition.

Ahtna doesn't want to close the road but does want to control trespass, charge for access and limit bad behavior like garbage, partying and fires, Johns said.

Ahtna works with guides, people who respect the land and who buy permits to fish, he said.

"We're all Alaskans," Johns said. "It's just an issue of private lands versus state lands. And it's not like these private lands are just a free-for-all."

Looking for resolution

The state began negotiating a settlement a few months ago, according to a statement from the Alaska Department of Law. Both parties requested a 90-day hold on court proceedings to attempt to finalize an agreement.

Assistant attorney general Cori Mills sent a statement from the department: "The State is hopeful that a mutually agreeable resolution can be reached and a long and contentious trial can be avoided."

Republican Rep. George Rauscher, the freshman House member from Sutton who represents the Glennallen area, sent the governor a letter charging that a settlement runs counter to Alaska's longstanding position on — and legal success defending — state sovereignty over public access involving Native land.

"The sudden news that a settlement is being negotiated comes as a surprise," Rauscher wrote. "And a potential blow to the public's trust in the system of state and federal laws that are the backbone of our free society."

In a Monday letter responding to Rauscher, Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said she could not discuss specifics of the settlement negotiations.

"What I can tell you is the State's position has been and continues to be that there is a right-of-way on Klutina Lake Road, and that the public will have access to the river, lake and state-owned lands," Lindemuth wrote. "There will be no settlement cutting off public access to those areas."

Lindemuth similarly declined to describe any specifics from the state's settlement proposal when she was before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.


A daylong mediation session in late January ran until 10 p.m., she told the committee. It took another two weeks of "back and forth" before Lindemuth said she was "confident enough in the framework on the table" that she felt comfortable putting off the proceedings.

If the case does go to trial, it's expected to take six weeks.

Precedent lost?

The federal law that created the Klutina Lake Road — known as Revised Statute 2477 — granted rights of way for highways across public lands not "otherwise reserved" for public uses. Ahtna argues a different statute under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act applies.

The state says there are more than 600 "R.S. 2477" roads and trails around Alaska, many of them crossing Native holdings. The federal government, however, has only acknowledged a handful.

If the state settles, that denies the opportunity to set a legal precedent by a court victory, Ogan said, but noted he hasn't seen any of the settlement proposals.

"Honestly, a settlement may not be a bad thing depending on what it is," he said.

Ahtna's corporate counsel, Matt Block, said he couldn't comment on the case.


Fight comes to AG confirmation

The battle over public access along the Klutina road flared with word the state and Ahtna had reached a tentative settlement.

The person leading the settlement talks — Lindemuth, a former private-practice attorney appointed in June by Gov. Bill Walker — was pilloried by some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during a confirmation hearing last week.

Access to public lands in Alaska is limited enough as it is, several committee members said.

Alaska has "R.S. 2477 rights" that need to be asserted, not diminished in a settlement that seeks a "win-win" situation for both sides, Senate President Pete Kelly told Lindemuth.

"I need a bunch of answers on R.S. 2477 before I will recommend that your name be forwarded," Sen. Kelly said during Wednesday's hearing.

Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, told Lindemuth that Costello's former employer, the late Gov. Wally Hickel, "would have fought the federal government to the last minute."

Lindemuth's confirmation was delayed until another hearing.

A lawmaker withholding a recommendation doesn't block Lindemuth's confirmation, according to Jordan Shilling, an aide to committee chair Sen. John Coghill.

The Judiciary Committee will likely recommend her name be forwarded, Shilling said.

Correction: This story originally incorrectly stated that Rep. George Rauscher represents the Copper Center area. Rep. Dave Talerico actually represents Copper Center. This story has also been updated with response from the state to Rep. Rauscher's letter.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at