Alaska river dispute leads to website changes

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2010

ANCHORAGE - An Alaska Native corporation that claims exclusive fishing rights to a Cook Inlet river has agreed to change a brochure and Web site after a warning from the state.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin sent a letter last month ordering the Tyonek Native Corp. to "cease-and-desist" ownership claims to the Chuitna River riverbed and stop blocking public access.

The Web site of a lodge owned by the corporation has advertised exclusive fishing along 10 miles of the river while a brochure warns the riverbed is privately owned so "walking, wading or standing on the riverbed is also considered trespassing."

The company's chief executive, Tom Harris, says the state's public access claims are based on unresolved questions in state and federal law.

While the corporation claimed ownership of the riverbed, it never claimed to own the entire river and never said it owned exclusive rights to fish there, Harris said.

He said the Web site's claim of "exclusive fishing" is a reference to the corporation's "ownership of some 40,000 acres of private land surrounding the river."

The company agreed to change the wording on the Web site to instead advertise "exclusive access" through private property to fishing sites.

Harris told the Anchorage Daily News he delivered the letter outlining the changes to the Department of Natural Resources on Thursday and Irwin invited him to stay and talk.

Harris said the corporation in turn invited Irwin to the village of Tyonek.

"We had a good, cordial visit," Harris said.

Irwin told the newspaper Friday he stands by his letter but is now focused on working with the corporation to resolve the dispute. He plans to visit Tyonek by the end of May, Irwin said.

The Chuitna is about 45 miles from Anchorage on the west side of Cook Inlet.

The Native corporation has asked Congress to create a conservation easement -- no commercial development along an eight-mile stretch of the Chuitna - in an effort to preserve salmon runs along the river.

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