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Dog sled tours operate under different standards

Permits are required of one tour company; the other is exempt

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Skagway company is wheeling tourists on dog sled tours through the woods on Douglas Island.

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Unless you just arrived on a cruise ship, it's no wonder if you haven't heard. The business isn't advertised for locals, and it's not attracting much attention from local authorities, either.

Robert Murphy, owner of Alaska Excursions, is running the dogs and passengers on cart tours about halfway up Fish Creek Road near Eaglecrest Ski Area.

Because the land is classified a "Native allotment," the only permit Murphy needed was a business license.

Chris and Dan Turner, who run a similar tour operation near Sheep Creek in Thane, worked several months getting permits approved by the city.

They paid for a noise test to determine whether the sound of barking dogs would reach neighbors. They drew up a bear safety plan that included guidelines such as this one: "The applicant shall remove any remnant dog food from dog dishes after the dog has eaten his fill."

Murphy, in partnership with the George family of Angoon, has been able to avoid most such bureaucracy. The Georges own the roughly 220-acre allotment.

"We technically don't have to get dog licenses," Murphy said Monday.

He said he would do so, however, to keep good faith with the city.

Some neighbors never knew the tours were taking place.

"I have not heard anything," said Ellen Ferguson of the North Douglas Neighborhood Association.

The history of these allotments extends back more than 100 years to the Native Allotment Act of 1906, which was nullified with the signing of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, said Desiree Duncan, Native lands manager for the Tlingit and Haida Central Council.

To qualify, Alaska Natives would have had to apply for the allotment prior to 1971, although Duncan said several cases took years to be settled.

In the case of the George family, Duncan said that Jimmy George of Angoon had applied for a 100-acre allotment on Admiralty Island where he and his family could live, hunt and fish.

He died before being awarded the allotment, which meant that it passed to his heirs when it was finally granted in 1992.

A few years later, the U.S. Forest Service approached the George family about exchanging that property for a parcel on Douglas Island. With the land came the rights, Duncan said.

The rights include exemption from property taxes and permit regulations.

For Murphy, who had first eyed the ski area itself, a lot of time was saved by working out a partnership with Gabriel George and his family.

"It is not really a cost factor. It would be a time factor and the fact that we would have had to start earlier (with permitting)," he said.

Gabriel George would not comment for the story.

The land is now private property. Jurisdiction lies with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Maria Lisowski, the U.S. Forest Service's assistant director of recreation, lands and minerals for Alaska.

"I know when the exchange was proposed, the city did have some concerns about whether they would be able to apply certain codes to the property," she said.

The Forest Service is no longer part of the deal and any regulations would need to be enforced by city officials.

So far, the city has kept its distance.

"It is a pretty gray area, and most people find a way to get along because most people realize they don't have a slam dunk (case)," said Roger Hudson, an attorney for the Office of the Solicitor in the Department of the Interior.

"There are some things that are very clear and some things that are not very clear," he said. For example, the city could never repossess the property and could never force the George family to pay property taxes.

"As far as regulation of activities on the property, that's a very ambiguous and controversial area of the law," he said.

One of the last times the law was tested was 18 years ago. The city expressed concern about homelessness and substance abuse at the Juneau Indian Village off Willoughby Avenue, which is also a Native allotment.

"The answer then was that it is all kind of fuzzy," Hudson said.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com or 523-2276.



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