Road to court

Klutena City

“Kluetna City” where early Alaska prospectors faced the decision of boat or trail to Copper Center on the Copper River/AK historic photo

What the opponents of a controversial state road settlement thought they couldn’t accomplish, Ahtna Inc. has done.


The regional Alaska Native corporation for East Central Alaska has decided it wants to go to court to settle the issues that surround a 25-mile-long, public-road corridor from the Richardson Highway to salmon-rich Klutina Lake. 

Court is exactly the place the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Safari Club International Alaska Chapter, leaders of the state Senate Majority, and other access activists had wanted the long-running dispute between the state and Ahtna to end up. They were of the opinion a proposed state settlement gave Ahtna too much authority over the land in what is called an “R.S. 2477” corridor, and in the process established a political precedent that could affect hundreds of similar corridors that crisscross federal, private and Native corporation lands in undeveloped rural Alaska.

R.S. 2477 is short for Revised Statute 2477 of the federal Mining Law of 1866, which sought to reserve right-of-ways for established trails throughout the West. The Alaska trails date back to the first of a bunch of northern gold rushes that began not long after that law was passed.

Among the best known R.S. 2477 routes in Alaska are the Iditarod Trail from Seward to Nome, the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway on to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada; and the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks north to oil-rich Prudhoe Bay on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. 

Land battles

R.S. 2477 designations have caused problems in the state before. State lawyers spent four years in court battling with a Knik-area landowner who tried to block the Iditarod Trail.  The state eventually won a major victory.

Not only was it granted the right-of-way, but Anchorage Judge Catherine Easter widened the route, writing that “anything less than a 100-foot wide right-of-way would make R.S. 2477 scope determinations more fact intensive, make the test similar to one for prescriptive easements, and go against long-standing (State) and Federal laws setting the width at 100 feet.”

The width of the Klutina Lake Road – otherwise known as the Brenwick-Craig Road – has been a major source of contention between the state and Ahtna. Ahtna wants a narrow, public right-of-way in which public use is restricted to travel. The state wants a wider public right-of-way in which public use is protected.

The dispute comes down to small and seemingly unimportant issues big to Alaskans: can someone go berry picking or grouse hunting in the right-of-way or use it to gain access to the Klutina to fish for king or sockeye salmon?

Gov. Bill Walker in July touted a proposed settlement that gave the state the 100-foot right-of-way and fishing access, but banned overnight parking and camping in the right-of-way.

“Camping and overnight parking opportunities (would be) provided by Ahtna for a reasonable fee outside of the Klutina Lake Road right-of-way,” the governor’s office said in a media release that quoted Walker saying “the state has been locked in costly litigation for too long. I applaud Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth and Ahtna for coming to an agreement…..”


That agreement didn’t last long, although Ahtna was less than fully clear on why exactly it rejected the settlement its lawyers had negotiated. Corporate spokeswoman Shannon Blue referred all questions to a corporate media release.

“The Ahtna, Inc. Board of Directors voted not to enter into settlement after taking into consideration comments from the affected villages in the region, as well as reviewing the comments submitted to the state during the public comment period,” the statement said. ” While the parties made an earnest effort with the proposed settlement, the compromises to its private land use rights that Ahtna, Inc. would have made in order to settle the case were simply not worth the certainty and other benefits of a negotiated resolution.  The parties therefore will move forward with litigation on the Brenwick-Craig Road issue.”

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said the state has been provided no specifics on what the Ahtna board found objectionable.

Beyond the road statement, the Ahtna release was largely devoted to a grievance that dates back to World War II when the U.S. government upgraded the 368-mile Richardson Highway – once the all-American route to the gold rich Klondike – from the Port of Valdez to Fairbanks. 

The highway was pushed through the middle of Gulkana village, “forcing families to across the Gulkana River without warning,” the release said. “Broad support for the return of the sacred lands to the Native Village of Gulkana was heard throughout the state of Alaska’s public comment process.”

As part of the Klutina settlement, Lindemuth and attorneys for Ahtna sought to change public access to the Gulkana River and clear up the title as to ownership of traditional village lands. They envisioned a broad settlement with Ahtna over land issues that date back 50 years but have intensified since passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.

Changing times

In settlement of aboriginal claims to all of the territory of Alaska, the federal government paid $900 million to 13 regional Native corporations after ANCSA was signed, and the 12 corporations resident in Alaska got to select about 44 million acres of land.

Ahtna selected a lot of its land along the Copper and Klutina rivers. Most of it was wild and unsurveyed. Gaining title took decades. The state, which had been granted the right to 104 million acres at Statehood in 1959, was dealing with similar delays in obtaining legal ownership while fighting the feds over the navigability of rivers, lakes and streams.

The Klutina ended up tangled in all of it.

“Initially, (the Bureau of Land Management) viewed the river as not navigable, citing the Klutina Lake Road along the river and the lack of information about the travel, trade and commerce as reasons,” a BLM history of the disputes says.  

The BLM changed its mind after the state pointed to a trove of information detailing the travels of gold prospectors in the area in the late 1890s. The BLM report examining these and other claims is stuffed with interesting history:

Differing Native uses

  • “Anthropologist have identified at least nine cultural sites in the Klutina River drainage area. Two are located along the Lower Klutina River. Near Cooks Bend of the Klutina River, at mile 18 of the Klutina Lake road, Jim McKinley of Copper Center stated that ‘a red painted design’ was located on a ‘sheer rock cliff’ above the river. According to oral tradition, this was made by the sole survivor of an Eskimo raiding party that had perished in an attempt to descend the river in a skin boat. Other evidence of Native use included an ancient moose fence which gold rush stampeders found along the east bank of Manker Creek (formerly called Grayling Creek). During the 1890s, Chief Stickwan, who lived at Wood Camp along the Copper River, may have maintained the fence.”

Before the arrival of Russian traders and fur hunters and later American gold seekers, the Eskimos and Athabascan Indians were regularly feuding over territory in Alaska. The Eyak Eskimos held a homeland around the mouth of the Copper River with the Ahtna along the river just to the north, the Tlingit Indians along the coast to the south, and the Alutiiq, or Chugach Eskimo people to the west holding a broad swath of territory that swept stretch from Prince William sound to Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, although Athabascan groups were the pushing into the Kenai Peninsula.

Moose and caribou fences were used by the Athabascans to herd animals into kill zones during animal drives. There are still places in Alaska where the remains of these fences can be found. 

The Outside invasion

  • “During the open (water) season, maybe prospectors, especially those with pack animals and large amounts of freight, took the Klutina Lake trail, which followed along the westerly bank of the lake and continued down the Lower Klutina on the bluffs overlooking the river. (The former trail along the lake and Klutina River is shown on U.S. Geological Survey maps; reportedly, evidence of the trail can still be seen on the ground to this day.) A prospector with an outfit of 500 pounds could cover a mile a day on the trail. Finally many stampeders built boats and descended the river and lake to its outlet. There they had the choice of boating down the Klutina River to Copper Center, following the trail to Copper Center, or sledding down the river after the river froze. One observer was probably correct in his claim that most stampeders prefered to camp above the rapids and go down the river on sleds after winter had silenced the boisterous stream and covered it with a sheet of ice.”

The late 1800 and early 1900s were a busy time in Alaska. The first prospectors chasing riches started working northward from California in the 1860s, and the first big gold rush came in 1872 when a major find was made in the Cassiar gold district along the Stikine River near Petersburg in the then-territory’s Panhandle.

Joe Juneau and Frank Harris struck it big a year later near what is now the state capital city of Juneau. It would be more than 20 years, however, until the country exploded with news of gold in the Canadian Klondike. More than 80,000 people stormed north from California and the Pacific Northwest and fanned out all across the state in search of gold. 

To this day, it is not unusual to stumble into their diggings, or gear or litter they left behind, in some of the most remote corners of the 49th state.

A steady history of use

  • “From time to time, the local newspapers carried stories that mentioned travel on the Klutina Lake trail….In July 1941, pilot Bob Claypool on a commercial flight from Anchorage to Valdez was forced to land on the Lower Klutina River after the plane’s engine exploded and blew off the propeller. Claypool hiked from Klutina Lake to Copper Center and reported the accident. According to the Valdez newspaper, a military rescue team flew from Elmendorf Field near Anchorage to Klutina Lake in a seaplane. The team attempted to descent the Lower Klutina River in a rubber raft, but quickly abandoned this attempt upon finding the current too swift and too many logjams in the river. They subsequently walked the 15 miles down the river ‘through dense undergrowth’ and ‘over fallen logs and stones’ to the crash site. None of the passengers were hurt. Claypool had succeeded in bringing the plane down on the river.”

The Klutina country has a rich history destined to only get more interesting as this case makes its way through the courts. As with so many issues involving lands and people in Alaska these days, it bridges a conflict with many differing but equally legitimate views.

The Outdoor Council’s Rod Arno said he only hopes the state does an adequate job of arguing the public’s interest.

“Anything but a win in state court sets it up to Alaska Native Corporations and villages to diminish historical use on 10,000 miles of R.S. 2477s where the underlying surface now belongs to Native Corporations since ANCSA,” he emailed. “But remember, everyone one of those right-of-way was part of the transfer of the title to the land to the state.

“Lindemuth told me her lawyers could not win against Ahtna’s attorneys on this issue. I say somebody in the state Legislature or the governor should go hire an attorney who can.”

Lindemuth, a former attorney for Alaska Native corporations, said in her statement that “I am disappointed that the (Ahtna) board was unwilling to come back to the table to see if we could negotiate the final terms of the settlement. The state has always tried to preserve public access to the greatest extent possible – whether through settlement or litigation.”

She promised to focus on the litigation going forward.





4 replies »

  1. RS2477s were part of every one of the land conveniences to Alaska Native Regional Corporations, Village corporations, and the state from the U.S. Federal goverment as agreed upon in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). To ask that the historical uses of any RS2477 in Alaska be diminished throws the whole compromise that ANCSA was on its face. Spilting the state up among federal lands, private Alaska Native lands, and state lands required strong public access rights to public lands and waters.
    If now public access to both state and federal lands/waters can be restricted by private property owners (Ahtna Inc. regarding the Klutina Lake road) let the courts tell us now.

  2. typo… from “….a military rescue team flew form Elmendorf Field near Anchorage to Klutina Lake in a seaplane. …..”

  3. Kent Sullivan is the assistant Ag who should be assigned to the case. The AG has the talent in her office but needs to use it.

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