Dispute over Chuitna River calls for cool heads, respect

Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

We're at that hard place in Alaska relations. Armed guards enforcing the Tyonek Native Corporation's no-trespassing rules on its lands. Unwelcome visitors by ATV and truck on that same land. A river rich in king and silver salmon and rainbow trout just 45 miles west of Alaska's biggest city - but one virtually claimed as private by the corporation.

The state ordered that corporation to stop claiming in brochures and on its website that it owns the riverbed, or that it can offer any exclusive fishing rights on the river.

Add the prospect of dueling lodge operations and a possible coal-to-liquids development in the area.

Mix in race, as in Native and non-Native.

So we have fish politics, racial politics, money politics; dueling lodges and dueling claims, all just minutes by air from the state's largest city.

Talk about your witch's brew. This is Alaska at its most volatile.

Alaskans have been here before. By now we should know that it's time to take a deep breath.

The corporation claims land on both sides of the Chuitna River - and asserts rights to the riverbed, claiming that wading, walking or standing in the river is trespass. Wrong, claims the state of Alaska. The Chuitna is a navigable river and therefore open to legal use by all Alaskans.

Not so, says the corporation. The Bureau of Land Management gets to make the call of navigability, and says the river is non-navigable and therefore not in the state's jurisdiction.

And the corporation claims ownership of the riverbed, so that anyone wading, walking or standing in the river is trespassing. That puts a crimp in your day's fishing, unless you can hover.

As of Tuesday, the corporation had "no statement at this time" as it considered its response to the Department of Natural Resources.

We don't know the answer to the legal question of jurisdiction, whether state or BLM. Nor can we say what definition of navigability the river fits.

We do know that state law keeping our navigable waterways open to all Alaskans is sound. Any Alaskan who abides by the rules and wants to fish the Chuitna should be able to do so, subject to the limits imposed by Fish and Game.

At the same time, Alaskans and anyone else should respect the private ownership rights of the Tyonek Native Corporation. That means respect for no-trespassing signs, no trashing of barricades, no using Tyonek land without permission.

Ideally, what we'd like to see is enough good will to meet the subsistence fishing needs of Tyonek residents. Then we'd like to see the sport fishery open, with some limited access to Tyonek land along the river. And we'd like to see the state manage the fishery in cooperation with Tyonek so that it doesn't become a combat-fishing river (no matter how unlikely that may seem now) but a place where Alaskans can come and fish and go in peace.

Impossible? We hope not. Solutions like these won't resolve all of the issues involved here. There should be a way to give Tyonek its due and keep the Chuitna open.

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