Klutina Lake Road access headed back to court after settlement rejected by Ahtna, Inc.

(Photo by Luke Jones/Flickr Creative Commons)

A proposed settlement over public access to Klutina Lake through privately held Ahtna, Inc., land has been rejected by the Native corporation, sending the issue back to the courts.

The announcement from Ahtna says the decision was made by the corporation’s Board of Directors because “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.”

“The Ahtna Board felt that it was important to explore every possible option other than a litigated solution,” said Ahtna, Inc. Chairman Nicholas Jackson in a prepared statement. “Ultimately, the decision was made that settlement is not in Ahtna’s best interest at this time.”

The settlement between the state of Alaska and Ahtna, Inc., sought to end a long-running legal battle over public access to Klutina Lake via the Klutina Lake Road (officially known as the Brenwick-Craig Road), which is located on Ahtna land. Both groups have agreed the road is public, but the Native corporation took issue with state activities in the road’s right of way in 2007 and filed a lawsuit in 2008. The state has since claimed an historic R.S. 2477 public right of way exists for the road, an issue that has yet to be determined by the courts.

The statement from Ahtna doesn’t go into much depth on the corporation’s reasoning to return to the courts, but the state has admitted it was already on shaky legal grounds.

The state sought to settle the case because it had already received a judge order that would undercut the state’s R.S. 2477 claim and wanted to avoid setting precedent for R.S. 2477 trails. A state explainer from the public input on the settlement explained the state’s reasoning.

“In this case, the superior court judge had already issued an order that, even if the State had won the remainder of the case, would have greatly restricted the uses within the right of way, with the possibility that there would be no camping and overnight parking allowed along Klutina Lake Road,” explained a state FAQ from July 2017. “The State would have had to ultimately appeal the order, which would have been costly and may have resulted in a negative outcome. Not only would this impact this case, but it would have set precedent at the Alaska Supreme Court for any future R.S. 2477 right of way in Alaska.”

The move angered some groups who felt the state shouldn’t voluntarily yield any ground on R.S. 2477 trails.

The settlement would have allowed the following:

  • A 100-foot-wide right right of way along the Klutina Lake Road.
  • Fishing, daytime parking and boat access from the right of way.
  • Three locations for boat launches along the road.
  • Ahtna would have been able to charge for overnight parking and camping outside the right of way.
  • A new 50-foot-wide right of way to connect Klutina lake Road and Klutina Lake.

“I am disappointed that the board was unwilling to come back to the table to see if we could negotiate the final terms of a settlement,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in a prepared statement responding to the rejection of the settlement. “The State has always aimed to preserve public access to the greatest extent possible—whether through settlement or litigation. With Ahtna’s decision, we will now focus our efforts on the litigation.”

Historic Gulkana Village site

The settlement also included provisions that would have restored and protected the historic Gulkana Village site that was harmed when the federal government built a bridge in 1943. The village claims that graves left behind in the sudden relocation have been desecrated for decades. The settlement would have relocated the public facilities by 2020 and established protections for the historic village and cemetery.

It appears that both the state, the Gulkana Village Council and Ahtna are still interested in finding a settlement for the village.

“The State and Gulkana Village Council will continue to consider potential actions to preserve boat access while also protecting the historic cemetery and townsite of Gulkana Village,” says the state news release on the issue.

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