Court rules public has a right to access gated Hillside trail

Roger Marks, vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Stewart Public Trail in Potter Valley

A property owner on the Anchorage Hillside who blocked off access to a hiking and recreational trail has lost his case in court, likely opening the Stewart Trail back up to public use in the near future.

The ruling, issued Sept. 1 by Alaska Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby, sided with the nonprofit group Friends of the Stewart Public Trail, Inc., which formed to push for reestablished access to the decades-old homestead path that runs across four private tracts of land on its way toward McHugh Peak. The group argued that for decades members of the public had been regularly using the trail for hiking, skiing and other recreational activities, and thus under Alaska legal precedent had a right to keep traversing the private parcels as part of the broader public easement.

Though there had long been a metal gate to keep out vehicle traffic, people told the court that since the ‘70s they had regularly stepped past it to use the trail without any serious objections from property owners. The trail was well-known enough that it was featured in a popular guidebook on hikes in Anchorage. Then, in 2015, three years after purchasing a parcel between Steam Boat Drive and the old trail, defendant Franklin Pugh fortified the gate, welding on metal extensions and festooning the barrier with barbed wire and signage. According to the court’s findings, Pugh resided nearby but never actually lived on the property at the heart of the trail.

Pugh was joined in the lawsuit by his wife and one other property owner in the area.

“The court concludes that the Plaintiff demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that the public’s use of the trail was continuous for at least 10 years,” Crosby wrote.

Roger Marks, vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Stewart Public Trail in Potter Valley

The defendants have 30 days from the ruling to request that the judge reconsider the decision, which, if granted, could open the door to it being heard by the state’s highest court.

“An appeal could take a year to 18 months to get a decision from the Alaska Supreme Court,” said Thomas Meacham, an attorney who worked on behalf of the plaintiff group, and thinks that outcome is unlikely.

Meacham said the decision likely has implications for other trails that cross private parcels heading into Chugach State Park from access points across the Municipality of Anchorage, signaling to recent property owners the court could privilege public access to historically established trails.

“The theory of property law is you should use your property, and if you don’t … someone else can put it to better use,” Meacham said.

The civil suit dates back to 2019, and cost the plaintiffs around $300,000 in legal bills, according to Roger Marks, vice president of the Friends of the Stewart Public Trail group. More than half of that sum was covered through donations that came in from about 200 individuals.

Having gone to trial and won, the group may be able to recoup some of its legal costs from the Pugh’s and the other defendant.

Neither Franklin Pugh or his attorney Kevin Fitzgerald responded to messages requesting an interview.

Even if a request is made, Marks doesn’t believe the judge in the case is likely to grant a reconsideration. Though details on removing the gate fortifications and ownership of an easement along the trail remain outstanding, Marks said the public may have access to the route restored within 60 days of the ruling.

“I love the trail, I used it quite a bit, before,” Marks said. “I haven’t been on it in seven years, since it was blocked off.”

[Earlier coverage by Alaska Landmine: One man’s mountain: How decades of dysfunction on the Anchorage Hillside allowed one man to gate the Stewart Trail and seize control of upper Potter Valley]

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the process by which the case could be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.