Murkowski seeks historic trails agreement

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Gov. Frank Murkowski wants an agreement with the federal government to protect historic trails as public rights of way across Alaska's federal lands.

Murkowski is seeking an agreement similar to the one that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton signed Wednesday.

''The governor has talked to the secretary and we've talked with other officials to lay the basis for such negotiations,'' said John Katz, head of Murkowski's Washington, D.C., office. ''The governor has instructed us to begin the negotiating process immediately.''

John Wright, spokesman for the Interior Department in Washington, said the agency is not currently negotiating with Alaska on a broad agreement, but the administration is encouraging states to enter such negotiations.

Like Utah, Alaska has already researched hundreds of old trails in hopes of convincing federal officials to recognize the routes as public rights of way.

Joe Sullivan, a specialist with the Department of Natural Resources in Fairbanks, said Alaska has claimed 657 routes under a defunct federal law.

The law, repealed by Congress in 1976, allowed anyone to establish a public right of way across unreserved federal land. Despite the law's repeal, such rights of way are still considered legally sound in theory, but there is much debate about what action was necessary to establish them in the first place.

In the early 1990s, then-Gov. Walter Hickel and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill created a program in the Fairbanks Department of Natural Resources office to document old trails and roads in Alaska, with the goal of proving that they qualified as rights of way.

In 1998, the state Legislature followed up with a law officially claiming 602 routes and requiring an annual report on additional routes. Since then, Sullivan said, DNR has added 55.

Federal and state officials have debated the question of what qualifies as a right of way for years, with courts occasionally offering guidance through lawsuit decisions.

Federal officials have wanted to see actual construction of a road before they would recognize the route.

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