FAIRBANKS - Alaska sued the Department of the Interior in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Monday, seeking a clear title to historic trails across federal land, Gov. Frank Murkowski said.
Murkowski rode a dogsled on a trail from Coldfoot to Chandalar Lake on Sunday to demonstrate the state's claim to the trail under an 1867 law that declared "the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."
Congress repealed the law in 1976 but rights of way established under its terms continue to exist. The definition of what a "highway" is has been a matter of debate for decades but for the most part the law has been interpreted to mean roads.
"This is the best way to assert jurisdiction, being on the trail and really seeing what this RS 2477 statute is all about," Murkowski said, referring to the old federal law.
The Coldfoot to Chandalar Lake Trail was established by prospectors in 1906 seeking to strike it rich in the Chandalar Lake gold fields. It is one of more than 650 trails the state has identified as historic routes that should have unrestricted public rights of way.
Murkowski said the state lawsuit seeks control of the Coldfoot trail and two others nearby "for whatever future need we might want." All three trails cross Bureau of Land Management property.
"We think by initiating this action we might prompt the Department of the Interior to move on the legitimacy of our claim," Murkowski said Sunday. "It puts the burden on them."
The state has been feuding for years with the Interior Department over the old law. Given the vast, remote and undeveloped nature of Alaska, and that much of the ground is covered by snow for up to eight months a year, trails are the equivalent of roads, Murkowski said. Most of the roads in Alaska started out as trails established by miners or mushers, he said.
Miners can use the 65-mile Coldfoot to Chandalar Lake Trail but must get a permit to cross BLM land. Murkowski mentioned several times during the trip Sunday that he did not want Alaska to become a "permit society."