Land deal secures public access to Russian River confluence

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Public access to one of Alaska's most popular fishing holes, the Russian River, was secured Thursday with a land deal.

Two federal agencies and Cook Inlet Region Inc. signed an agreement intended to end 26 years of wrangling over ownership of the prime fishing grounds around the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers, including the campgrounds and ferry.

The site has drawn fishermen of many kinds and cultures for thousands of years and has made combat fishing famous in recent times.

Under the terms, CIRI will relinquish its claims to more than 2,000 acres there. In trade, the Native corporation retains title to 502 acres of archaeological finds within its original selection area.

In addition, CIRI gets two parcels of land in the same area. A 42-acre piece on the north side of the Sterling Highway covers the bluff overlooking the confluence, where the Russian's clear water splashes into the larger, silty green Kenai. There, the agencies and CIRI say they want to build a joint archaeological interpretive and research center. CIRI also has the right to build a lodge on the property.

The other, 20-acre piece is on the Kenai River in Cooper Landing. The deal reserves a 50-foot public easement along the river.

''I think you can say that in the end, everyone's interests were served,'' said Kirk McGee, CIRI vice president.

The agreement was hailed as a breakthrough on many levels by the two agencies that manage federal land at the Russian River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

For instance, the concept of ceding archaeological rights to a Native corporation without giving up ownership of the land is so new that it cannot be done without new federal law.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said Thursday he sees no immediate problem with legislation.

''It appears to be a win-win proposition from what I've heard. I think it ought to be something we should pursue,'' he said.

While aspects of the deal await Congress, business at Fish and Wildlife's ferry and the Forest Service's Russian River Campground will go about unchanged.

''This is undoubtedly one of the more pleasurable tasks that I've had,'' said Paul Forward, the Forest Service's acting forester in Alaska. ''This is a giant step. In the meantime it's status quo, so users are unaffected by it.''

Thousands of red salmon school up at the river confluence before scooting up to Russian Lake tributaries to spawn. Hook-and-line anglers have caught 50,000 to 100,000 red salmon a year there for decades. In earlier centuries, it was fished with other tackle, possibly nets made from finely woven spruce roots weighted with notched stones.

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