Deal would allow public access near historic Ahtna village

Public hearings set for Gulkana, Glennallen, Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks

A proposed settlement reached by Ahtna Inc. with the state of Alaska could resolve a decades old dispute centered on historic Gulkana Village and, more recently, public access to recreation areas at Klutina Lake.

Gov. Bill Walker and Ahtna Inc., in separate statements on July 17, announced the proposed settlement as a solution for public access to the popular fishing and outdoor recreation area, while resolving long standing impacts to the Gulkana historic cemetery and townsite.

“We have been working for decades to resolve a very emotional decision that our elders still feel hurt over,” said Nicholas Jackson, chairman of the regional Alaska Native corporation.

We are very proud to have been able to assist Gulkana Village Council in regaining ownership of their people’s ancestral land and burial grounds that were taken from them without warning so many decades ago,” Jackson said.  The cemetery had been there since the late 1800s, he said.

“I’m glad that after many years of trying to negotiate it has finally come to a close,” Jackson said.  “I think it is a good thing that is happening and I thank the governor for the effort that he put in.

“I didn’t think it would take this long,” said Jackson, who joined the Ahtna staff in 1972, shortly after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. “We went through a lot of administrations trying to get it (done) and when Governor Walker found out the graveyard was involved, he was pretty upset that nobody was working on it.  I appreciate what he pushed for.”

Advertisement

“This agreement is a good faith effort to balance private ownership and public access needs,” said Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth. “While every settlement involves give and take, both sides were able to address the issues most important to them in this proposed settlement, including maintaining reasonable public access, and avoid the uncertainty of a long trial and likely appeal.

“The state will go to court when it makes sense, but we believe a settlement in this case provides a better opportunity to protect access to state lands and waters.”

Walker said thatwhen he visited Gulkana last year traditional Chief Fred Ewan told him he would like his village to regain ownership of his people’s ancestral land and burial sites.

Chief Ewan, who will mark his 101st birthday on Aug. 13, is one of very few elders still in the area who remember when it all began, Jackson said.

Back in 1943, before statehood and in the midst of World War Two, the federal government bisected what was a thriving village on the Gulkana River in order to realign the highway and build a new bridge. Families were forced to resettle across the Gulkana Rier and the historic village cemetery has since experienced decades of grave desecration, Ahtna officials said. The federal trustee who granted the land to the state later admitted he had no record of having followed the law and obtaining the consent of the village before giving away its land, Ahtna officials said. Now the Native Village of Gulkana is working to clear the title to land in the area.

“We didn’t know what was going on (at the time)” said Ahtna elder Roy Ewan, of Gulkana, a child during those war years, and later a representative for Ahtna at Alaska Federation of Natives meetings.

When they put through the road, they went through the middle of that historic cemetery, Jackson said.

The current lawsuit, which the proposed agreement seeks to settle, originated in 2008 when Ahtna sued the state, alleging actions by the state along the unpaved Klutina Lake road constituted a trespass. The state counterclaimed, asserting the existence of a public right-of-way under federal Revised Statue 2477. While both sides agreed there is an existing public road, they disagreed on the width, scope of use and the state’s property interests in the road.

In 2016, Judge Andrew Guidi issued an order contrary to the state’s position, stating that uses of any R.S. 2477 right-of-way were restricted to ingress and egress only, but the question of whether an R.S. 2477 even existed as put off until trial. Settlement discussions began in January of this year.

The settlement also would resolve a long-running dispute regarding access to the recreational area. Klutina Lake Road is a narrow dirt path that follows the bluff of the Klutina River from the Richardson Highway to Klutina Lake, a distance of about 25 miles. The area sits with a 60-foot-wide Federal 17 (b) easement across Ahtna’s land.  IN 2007, the state cleared areas alongside the western part of Klutina Lake Road, removing Ahtna signs and a fee station in the process. Ahtna sued the state for exceeding the scope of the easement, in terms of its width and uses it permitted.

The state countersued, contending that an obscure 1866 law, Revised Statute 2477, which was repealed in 1976, entitled the state to a property interest in the road.

Both sides then worked to resolve the dispute, which resulted in the proposed agreement. “We feel that a fair balance has been reached in the agreement that will enable Ahtna to protect and manage our private land while continuing to allow convenient public access for recreational opportunities,” said Ahtna President Michelle Anderson. “The settlement was done in a collaborative and cooperative spirit to benefit our shareholders, the general public, and the state of Alaska.”

Ahtna permits recreational use on Ahtna lands with permits available for purchase online at permits.ahtna-inc.com, in person at Ahtna Glennallen Corporate Headquarters, via the U.S. mail and by phone. Ahtna currently charges $25 a night for a camping and overnight parking permit. An annual Ahtna permit for camping and overnight parking currently runs $125. The one-acre lot adjacent to the airstrip is a federal site and the public will bontinue to be able to camp and park in this area for free for 24 hours.

Some settlement terms Ahtna and the state agreed to include:

  • Relocation of public parking and other facilities at the Gulkana River boat launch to protect the historic townsite and cemetery.
  • A 100-foot-wide state highway right-of-way along Klutina Lake Road
  • Fishing, daytime parking and boating access (without a trailer) from the Klutina Lake Road right-of-way
  • Tree locations along Klutina Lake Road where the public can launch boats using trailers
  • Camping and overnight parking opportunities provided by Ahtna for a reasonable fee outside of the Klutina Lake Road right-of-way, including at Boys’ Camp
  • A new 50-foot-wide state right-of-way to connect Klutina Lake Road to state land on Klutina Lake that has excellent potential for public recreation and hunting.

Public area improvements planned for access to Gulkana River would include:

  • A new parking area upstream of the Richardson highway bridge is planned for construction between 2018 and 2020. The public will be able to continue using the existing access until the new one is built.
  • Secure fencing to protect the GUlkana Village grave site area with signage recognizing the cultural and historical significance of the area
  • Restroom facilities in summer months at the parking and boat landing areas.
  • Highway safety signs and measures to protet pedestrians, including a foot trail under the bridge to connect the parking area and boat landing.

The public will have several opportunities to offer written or oral comment on the proposed settlement, at meetings from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Gulkana Hall in Gulkana; Alaska Bible College-Murdock Campus Center in Glennallen from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 .m. Aug 1; at Room 104 of the Atwood Building in Anchorage Aug. 2, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; at the Curtis Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 3; and at the Noel Wien Library in Fairbanks from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 7.

Written comments are also being accepted through Aug. 30 at [email protected] or via mail to The Alaska Department of Law, c/o Natural Resources Section-Klutina/Gulkana Comments, 1031 West 4th Avenue, Suite 200, Anchorage , AK 99501-1994.

The state and Ahtna worked for the past five months on the proposed settlement. Copies of that proposed settlement, maps, and more related information are online at www.gov.alaska.gov/klutina-gulkana-settlement.

Advertisement