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Murkowski: Yukon boat check by feds was ‘tipping point’

Posted: August 16, 2011 - 10:10pm

FAIRBANKS — The arrest of a man on the Yukon River last year was the “tipping point” for relations between the state and federal land managers and highlighted the need for improvement, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

“I think there is a heightened sense that enforcement with federal agencies has just topped out,” Murkowski said, referring to the arrest of Jim Wilde, 71, of Central, during a contentious boat check on the river in September.

The senator’s comments Monday came during a round table discussion with a half-dozen state and federal officials at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, according to Tuesday’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (http://bit.ly/mWT6uQ ).

State officials believe Alaska has sovereign rights over its navigable waters — even those that pass through federal lands. State Attorney General John Burns said the state’s jurisdiction is clear, citing laws that include the Statehood Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

But, he said, federal agencies have demonstrated “unprecedented overreach” in recent years. He cited permit requirements for mushers guiding dog teams down rivers in national parks and the prohibition of hovercraft on similar waters.

Burns said the state has filed numerous lawsuits against the federal government to assert its role in land management. He said he believes they’re necessary to keep the state from falling victim to expanding federal reach.

“Once you lose a right, it’s so difficult to regain it,” he said.

Burns said the ultimate solution should come from Congress, which needs to clarify jurisdiction issues on Alaska’s waterways.

“The real fix is the recognition of what the state’s sovereign authority is all about . Unless that is corrected, we will revisit this issue time and again,” he said.

Greg Dudgeon, the superintendent of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, said the state and federal government should share jurisdiction.

The National Park Service has an obligation to protect the quality of its land and that managing the watersheds needs to be a part of that job, he said.

Those responsibilities include monitoring activities that could be harmful to waterways, he said.

Mitch Ellis, the regional chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said federal officials also have an obligation to make sure people are acting safely when they recreate on federal lands.

Since the presence of the state and U.S. Coast Guard alone can’t keep up with that task, he said it makes sense for other agencies, such as Park Service rangers, to coordinate the effort together.

But Craig Fleener, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said disputes aren’t typically about law-enforcement powers, but rather “values” disagreements between state and federal managers.

“The people of Alaska shouldn’t be afraid of their government,” Fleener said. “They shouldn’t be afraid to hunt and fish.”

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, successfully attached language to an Interior Appropriations bill that would make boating and other activities inside the Yukon-Charley National Preserve off-limits to National Park Service enforcement.

Murkowski said a broader solution is needed.

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