Winter SAD

mental health lands

Alaska Mental Health Trust lands in the Big Lake vicinity

In a state with more public land than any other and a pathetically small population compared to most of the world, yet another dispute has erupted over access to wildland recreation.

This time a plan by one of the least known of Alaska land management agencies to impose a recreational-use fee of up to $500 on snowmobilers crossing its lands next winter has angered the state’s largest outdoor organization.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority wants riders to pay to help fund its operations and/or compensate the trust for “documented recreational use patterns on Trust land…that are causing negative impacts to Trust land.”

Which issue actually sparked the fee proposal is unclear in the Trust’s notice of a “Best Interest Decision” involving winter use of Trust lands by both recreational snowmachines and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

The Trust controls about 1 million acres in mostly small parcels scattered widely around the state. Most of the land is near the road system. Some of it is near areas regularly used by snowmachine riders such as in the areas around Big Lake, a resort community just north of Anchorage, and Cleary Summit, a recreation area just north of Fairbanks.

In a Monday message to Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority CEO Mike Abbott, Alaska Outdoor Council director Rod Arno says his group can’t figure out what the Trust is thinking.

“AOC agrees wholeheartedly with the purpose of the Alaska Mental Trust Authority whose mission by law is to benefit the mental health of Alaska’s residents,” AOC executive director Rod Arno wrote. “(But) nowhere in the Best Interest Decision proposed by the executive director of the Trust Land Office, is there any mention of the benefit to numerous Alaska residents to get out and ride on undeveloped lands.”

“While the number of Alaskans whose behavioral health is fortified by getting out of town to snowmachine and ATV seasonally may be hard to quantify, it is a factor that should be taken into account when determining the bests of Alaskans uses of 1 million acres of Trust lands scattered throughout the state.”

Alaska is a state famous for SAD – seasonal affective disorder – in winter.

“People with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression. The symptoms usually occur during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight and usually improve with the arrival of spring,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Spending time outside catching whatever little sun is available helps in dealing with SAD, the association says. As does “taking care of your general health and wellness (with)…regular exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and staying active and connected.'”

On general principle, Arno argued, the Mental Health trust should be trying hard to get Alaskans up and moving in winter rather than putting up disincentives to doing so.

And though the Trust has suggested the fee is necessary to make up for “negative impacts” to Trust lands by snowmachines and ATVs, Arno noted, the agency has offered no evidence of damage.

At least what the Trust’s land office considers “negative impacts” should be made clear, Arno argued, before the Trust imposes permit fees that are “exorbitant and not consistent with current motorized use on private lands” in the state.”

Fight over almost nothing

The disagreement between the AOC and the Trust comes in the wake of a years-long battle between moose hunter John Sturgeon and the National Park Service on the seldom-visited Nation River in unroaded and remote northeast Alaska.

The Park Service did not impose a prohibitive fee on Sturgeon, but instead tried to simply kick him off the waterway in the Yukon-Charly Rivers National Preserve because the agency didn’t like his preferred type of boat – a hovercraft.

Because hovercraft are uniformly banned from heavily visited national parks in the Lower 48, the park said, they shouldn’t be allowed in the wild parks of Alaska even though the park-enabling legislation – the Alaska National Interest Lands Act – said Alaska parks were to be treated differently.

Yukon-Charley is such a hard place to visit that the Park Service reported only 1,272 recreational visitors there last year, up from 952 the year before.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the country’s most visited park unit, averaged more people than that for every hour of every day last year, according to Park Service statistics.

But land disputes can get very contentious in Alaska no matter how few people are involved.

Sturgeon and the Park Service paid attorneys millions of dollars during the course of a 12-year-long legal battle that twice reached all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which eventually held that the Park Service had overstepped its authority.

Similar and related cases have followed. The state and Ahtna Inc., an Alaska regional Native corporation, are now in court fighting over who gets to control the access corridor along a rough, four-wheel drive road to Klutina Lake in northeast Alaska.

Ahtna sees the road as a low-investment, money-making opportunity. If it controls the land along the road, it can prohibit people from doing anything in the road corridor unless they pay an “access fee.”

The road is adjacent to the Klutina River, a popular salmon fishing stream by the standards of the area. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported 3,734 anglers – or about 42 per day – fished the 63-mile long river over the course of the 2017 fishing season.

Most of the fishing took place near a Richardson Highway bridge that crosses the river near the community of Copper Center. Ahtna would not appear to stand to make much money off access fees, but a dollar is a dollar.

Trust’s gold mine?

How much the Trust hopes to make off snowmachine riders is also unknown. The agency offered no estimate.

Arno said in an interview that he has been unable to find anyone the Trust consulted on costs for the program or potential revenues. The Trust already collects tens of thousands of dollars indirectly from snowmachine riders.

It in 2013 agreed to rent the Matnuska-Susitna Borough easements protecting  public use of several of the borough’s most heavily traveled snowmachine trails – including the “Iron Dog” trail – through 2033 at a cost of $67,000 per year.

Snowmachining is considered an economically important tourism activity in the Mat-Su Valley.

The easement corridors are limited to a width of 25-feet, and there are open areas where snowmachine riders clearly spread out behind the 25-foot width of the corridor.

Whether the Trust would try to require snowmachine riders using those trails to pony up for an access fee is unclear. Likewise the response of riders to such a demand.

“Compliance with such an exorbitant permit fee may be minimal, and enforcement would be problematic,” Arno wrote. 

“The bad thing is that the parcels are all broken up,” Arno added in an interview. “There’s so many places here in Southcentral that you hit a piece of it.”

He has suggested the Trust might spend more money than it stands to make if it actually tries to post all of its and lands then enforce winter fee collection.

Opposition was already rising in independent-minded Fairbanks where local snowmachine dealer Craig Compeau called the fee crazy and credited Wyn Menefee, the director of the Trust’s Land Office in the Department of Natural Resources.

“Menefee never met a fee he didn’t like,” Compeau said.

Others questioned why, if snowmachine riders are being charged, mushers, fat bikers and others who followed snowmachine trails almost everywhere they go in Alaska these days aren’t being charged.

The Trust is charged with managing its 1 million acres of Alaska land to raise maximum. long-term revenues to help fund efforts to deal with the state’s serious mental health issues.

That’s all well and good, Arno wrote to Abbott, but “it is unclear from the notice whether TLO (Trust Land Office) is trying to collect funds to mitigate snowmachine and ATV use or whether the intent is to provide funding beneficial to trust beneficiaries.”

AOC, which represents about 10,000 members and 48 other non-government entities including several snowmachine groups, suggested the agency “withdraw its decision to charge recreational motorized users and clarify exactly what is the intent of permitting motorized use of snow machines and ATVs (less than 1,500 pounds) on Trust land.”

Sturgeon, who now sits on the board of directors for the Trust, said the organization’s board was never consulted about the plan.

“I don’t know anything,” other than what he’s heard from the AOC and snowmachine dealer who contacted him, he said in Tuesday interview.

“That’s first I heard about it,” he added. He has asked to have the issue put on the agenda for the board’s next meeting in hopes of clearing up the intent of the new fee. He admitted the proposed charge of $250 to $500 seems awfully high.

“A lot of people are kind of upset about this,” he said.













28 replies »

  1. I’m mystified why people would even question an entity’s right to charge a fee for use of the entity land . Especially an entity charged with trying to raise money for mental health. Seems a responsible move in my eyes . Especially as they are correct. Current users are damaging the land with atv and other machines. It’s easil visible from the air. It’s not technically public land so mental health trust doesn’t have to proove it’s been damaged as anyone can see from satellite or air pictures there is a damage concern. Responsible adults don’t generally trespass . In court of law precedent usually shows lack of knowledge is not an excuse for breaking a law . Currently there are apps and Borough maps that show land ownership . When access is in dispute such as an old trail that predates mental health ownership, it’s another story. There are often legal protections for certain trails . I don’t think old trails with legal access is what’s in question. It’s more of random users taking advantage of something that is not theirs. Entitlement concept.

    • Opinion, is it cost effective to prevent mental health issues? It seems at least by AOC (Alaska Outdoor Council and not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), that people who can get out of the house and kids away from the computer games, Alaskans will be in better mental health.

      • Al In principle there is no argument with what you say. The issue is property right and responsible management. What I’ve read of mental heath land is it’s bylaws require it to be managed to benifit trustees so they can keep financially supporting entities they have determined assist with mental health. It’s not specifically for the public’s use . It’s for very specific mental health related causes that need financial support. It’s not technically public land . Therin lies the crux. Anyone who uses private land may have to compensate the owner. That’s standard law. I’m sure an expert could fill us in better as to all the minutae of public health trust land laws/ bylaws . It would help clear up the issue. Until then it’s silly for adults to complain about having to pay to use something that is not theirs . Entitlement syndrome. Free stuff .

      • Opinion, i agree with most of all your comments, but this a State agency that owns land in behave of the State (like university lands). TLO has to follow State laws that govern them. Unlike privet property owners. As you stated they have by- laws in compliance with State law and regulations. As i pointed out they may have not followed the Open Meetings Act and may be discriminating against users. Other privet property owners do not have to comply with such laws or regulations. They have a deed to their property. MHTA deeds are held by the State.

      • Good info Al . Perhaps you can carefully outline their responsibilities.

      • I think Craig had laid out what the trust’s responsibilities are. I pointed out how they may have not followed their responsibilities of following process.

      • Opinion, The MHTA is not the only State entity that has been given the authority to manage state resources to beneficial for the State. The Board of Fisheries, The Board of Game, State Forestry, Mining and oil, and DNR to name a few. All have to make decisions in the best interest. The legislature has given some the authority to charge fees and others not. But they all have to follow procedures.
        I do not disagree with you that the MHTA has the responsibility to protect their interests. But how and how much is land devalued with vehicle trails/use on their land? i owned land with 4 wheeler trails on the property, i use a snow machine on the property, I have seen erosion from them and i cut trees down annually on the property. Yet my borough property taxes have never gone down since i purchased the property 25 years ago.

      • Al I will carefully read what you wrote. I think you may be slightly incorrect as to how mental health lands are connected to the state . It appears according to the state court settlement with me mental health the state was required to convey deeds in standard fashion. So I suspect these lands are not as public as you envision. Do you have a place to download all the factual documentation?

      • Opinion, in no way am i saying these lands are not privet lands. But these privet lands are different than privet lands that owned by anyone else.

  2. If it was the intent of the TLO to discourage Alaskans from accessing or using Trust Lands with vehicles by imposing an incredible high trespass fee off $500.00. They have exceeded. If this fee is enacted. Not only is the fee expensive or not even affordable for most Alaskans, but it also discriminates against Alaskan who have low or medium incomes, Alaskans who have disabilities that exclude them from hiking or walking, subsistence users, and is an additional tax beside the one the state collects on all 4 wheelers and snow machines. One of the uses for this tax, is it was to be used for trail degradation. Degradation was alleged as one of the reasons TLO wanted to impose such a fee, but TLO has not provided any data to the public on this issue.
    If this fee is enacted, TLO will be the first State agency to have a fee associated for subsistence opportunity of wild resources

    What should the fee be?
    TLO should analyze how many persons/families are using MHTL, how many times are those persons using the land per year, and what is the purpose of their visit. I do not believe this was ever done (at least in none of my research or what information was provided).
    With that being said, how did TLO come up with the fee of $500.00? What justification was used for the sum of $500.00? You are aware that ATV users already pay a fee for a sticker to use state and other public lands?
    Should subsistence users have to pay the fee?
    Considerations/waivers should be made for personal incomes and disabilities of applicants.
    Consider this. If your fee was affordable, you most likely will have very high compliance from the public. As it is now and with no policing powers or staff to patrol Trust Lands. I predict very little compliance or trespassers civilly prosecuted.

    According to the MHTA’s By-Laws, Article VI, Meetings, it states in Section 3. Reasonable public notice of board and committee meetings shall be provided in accordance with AS 44.62.310. Meetings of the board and its committees are subject to the Open Meetings Act, AS 44.62.310 and 44.62.312.
    Also, it states in Article VI, Section 6. The board will schedule at least one period for public comment during each regularly scheduled board meeting.
    It also states in Sec. 47.30.031. Regulations.
    (a) The board shall adopt regulations under AS 44.62 (Administrative Procedure Act) consistent with state law and the fiduciary responsibilities imposed by law on members of boards of directors of corporations having trust responsibilities.
    I do not believe TLO Project 2019-171 was in compliance with the By-Laws or the Open Meetings Act. I cannot find any publicly posted agenda or minutes from a meeting were this amended permit and new fee were discussed or an opportunity provided for public comment at a scheduled meeting. This change, is at least an amendment to current regulation/policy and must be in compliance with AS 44.62 The Open Meetings Act. This should be reviewed before any changes are enacted, with an explanation.

    On a side note TLO should review the “trapping permit”. There are some inconsistencies when compared to other “non-commercial uses”.
    Not all trappers trap for financial gain. Many trappers harvest fur bearers for personal use and subsistence needs, but are still required to have a trapping permit (unlike hikers, fishermen and hunters not using vehicles who do not require a permit).
    Not all trappers use vehicles or a snow machine. They walk, ski, and snowshoe, but the “tapping permit “does not exempt those individuals who do not use vehicles or snow machines from having a permit.
    TLO states the reason trappers need a permit, because trappers can protentional sell their fur. This is “commercial use”.
    But this is inconsistence with hunters. (who do not need a permit). Hunters can harvest “fur animals” and can also sell the pelts harvested off MHL. Also the State allows hunters to sell certain portions of game parts from “small game” and “big game”. Ie. Horns, antlers, capes, life-size skins, skulls, feathers, claws and so on.
    TLO has singled out trappers and discriminated against them by requiring them to have permit and not hunters.

  3. I believe the first thing that the trust would have to do is go out and “post” their land so riders know where it is located.
    Then there is the question of hunting season…will hunters next need to have a permit to be on trust land?
    I know of several parcels in the Willow area that do serve as vital spots for winter recreation and are not posted in any way at this time.
    Last…Who will enforce these permits and check users out on the trail?
    Without enforcement it will be hard to maintain a system of permit fees for users.

    • Agree, everything I just read and you mentioned is unenforceable. Honestly, it shouts “prime hunting grounds” to some. Plus, like Steve-O said ” This is a classic money grab from a government entity. These are public lands.” And is utter BS.

  4. The Trust does offer land for sale and/or lease the problem is they offer very little and at exorbitant prices. The PF Corporation manages the lions share of their cash reserves, of which they have a lot. This is a classic money grab from a government entity. These are public lands. There should be a marginal fee associated with the use to offset any costs, but $500 is awfully high.

    • Hi Steve,

      Are these ‘public lands’? Is the AK Public Health Authority a ‘public’ entity? If no (and I have no idea if it is or not, just asking a question here), wouldn’t their lands be ‘theirs’ and not ‘ours’? What’s the difference between these guys and Ahtna legally? If this is a private entity, I feel that they are entitled to keep anyone off of their land if they so choose to. If this is indeed ‘public’ land, why is it ‘theirs’? In general, I feel that many Alaskans (especially many in the snowmachine community) really want to have their personal private property to have exclusive protection and that anyone else’s property is fair game.

      This goes along with one of my favorite AK small town local ideas – on weekends where it seems like all of Anchorage and Wasilla are up here tearing up the roads, trails, driveways, sidewalks, bike paths, etc., the folks of the upper valley should move on down to any random cul-de-sac in the civilized world and set up camp. We’ll pull our RV’s in, set up a shooting range on someone’s lawn, start drinking at 10:00am and really whoop it up – whip shitties in peoples lawns, poop in their flower beds – just go the distance. When one of the local citizens comes out and says – ‘what the (your expletive of choice) do you think you’re doing?!” We’ll answer with the pervasive answer given to us ‘we didn’t know anyone was here…’

      Figure it out! Freakin’ degens…


      PS – sorry about that whole rant, it’s more for humor and not directed at you – Cheers!

      • No problem Jack, these are in fact public lands, see the links I’ve provided above. I don’t doubt that there are degenerates amongst us, there is ample evidence to support that.

        The government can keep the public off of the public lands, and they can charge a fee to access public land. State Parks, National Park and Monuments all charge fees to access public land. It seems to me that the Mental Health Trust has been on a mission to make money, but they don’t want to use the assets that were entrusted to them to do so, much the same way that out land grant college system is doing. Either it’s a money grab or it’s locking up the land from the public. $500 for an annual permit is excessive.

      • No worries – whippin’ shities is when you take your off road whatever and spin donuts in someone’s driveway or lawn. No matter how you look at it, it’s shitty…

      • Jack,

        I’m all about going into Los Anchorage and whipping shitties all over peoples yards, especially if we are drinking by 10am! One question though, is it bring your own body armor or do you have enough to go around? Los Anchorage is deadly territory and if the statistics are to be believed a much more deadly place than the rest of the state, at least when it come to human on human violence.

      • “Los Anchorage is deadly territory and if the statistics are to be believed a much more deadly place than the rest of the state, at least when it come to human on human violence.”

        Here, as in every place all over the globe, it is almost uniformly only “more deadly” in terms of actual individual risk for the tiny subset of humanity which is voluntarily involved in the sub-culture of violence, and/or knowingly associates with those who are.

        Not so much for the rest of us, with a very few, and thus widely reported, exceptions that prove the rule.

      • Mathew, that was a great point you made to bring clarity to reality about los Anchorage violence.

  5. I haven’t looked into the Trust much, but why is the Trust not selling or long-term leasing the land and putting the revenue into a “Permanent Fund” as opposed to just sitting on undeveloped fallow land near roads and recreational areas which could be sold for their “high-reasonable” asking price, given the Trust at status quo is not a “motivated seller” and could hold out for asking price?

    Pick a just shy of insultingly high number based on multiple appraisals and historic use patterns and let the private sector figure out if it makes sense. Voila, cash to invest and less land taken out of the potential tax base.

    • Why would anyone buy it when they can just ride it for free… After all, isn’t it ‘public’ land? Private property rights in AK seem like they are ignored all winter long by large groups of degens…


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