April 5: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Chitina dipnetting fees:

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

The trespass fee paid by Chitina dipnetters may be so deeply institutionalized by now that it's impossible to roll back, but the state should do the right thing and drop the current arrangement because it is a politically expedient but grossly unfair solution.

The fee will rise to $25 this summer, but whether $10 or $25, the system is wrong.

The fee is charged in large part because so many dipnetters tromp and drive across lands belonging to the Chitina and Ahtna corporations. The state passes much of the money to the corporations to compensate them for the use of the land.

The concept of paying for access over private land is unassailable. Those corporations have every right to charge what the market will bear. No one should even think of criticizing the corporations for wanting to do so. They may be ''Native'' corporations created by government settlement of aboriginal claims, but that doesn't mean that their ownership rights are in any way compromised. The corporations own that land just as securely as the average homeowner in Fairbanks owns his front lawn -- more so because there's no mortgage on Native corporation property. If the corporations want to charge money to cross their property, more power to them.

However, it is not the state's job to act as the collection agent. And it is doubly offensive that the state charges not only those people who cross the private lands but also those who avoid the private land entirely.

It is perfectly possible to avoid trespassing on Chitina and Ahtna lands by using a boat. That's not an option for many people, because the Copper River is fast and dangerous and guided boats cost money. But why should those people who use boats have to pay a trespass fee when they come nowhere near the private land? It may be easy, but it's not right.

It also may be possible, with a little more effort, to avoid crossing corporation land even when dipnetting from shore. The corporations dispute this claim, but it appears that the old railroad right of way along the Copper River in many places abuts the mean high water mark. That means there is a public right of way to the river.

Even if that's true, though, the corporations claim that the road used to reach such areas actually exits the old right of way in some places, so a person simply cannot reach the river without crossing their land.

That's disputable, but if a survey confirms it, then the corporation can set up a toll and start charging.

Currently, the state is in essence doing that job for them, by charging every dipnetter from the Copper River bridge to Haley Creek as well. It's an abuse of state authority and funds.

If the state wants to charge a fee for dipnetting to cover the cost of garbage removal, toilets and law enforcement, then let the agencies propose it and the people debate it. All the money from such a fee should go to the state, though.

The state in turn should use some of the money, all of the money, or even more money from other sources -- whatever it takes -- to serve the interests of its citizens, i.e. the Native corporate shareholders, by aggressively protecting their property rights.

The current solution sets a messy, unfortunate precedent. It will only spread if left to stand.

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