Governor wants feds to recognize Alaska trails

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski wants the federal government to recognize some Alaska trails as public rights of way.

The proposal, presented to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, has drawn criticism from at least one environmental group.

Jim Stratton, Alaska director of the National Parks Conservation Association in Anchorage, said Friday the governor is on shaky legal ground and is unwisely encouraging a ''spider web'' of roads through Alaska's federally protected ecosystems.

John Katz, Murkowski's Washington, D.C., representative, said the proposal follows the letter and intent of the law and that most rights of way would continue to see little use or expansion. Targeted are trails established by hikers, dog teams, horses, snowmachines and off-road vehicles until the late 1960s.

Murkowski presented the proposed ''memorandum of understanding'' to the Interior Department in late July but declined to offer details publicly at the time. The memo includes descriptions of 14 trails he wants recognized initially, although the state has a list of more than 650 trails it says deserve similar rights of way.

''In no way has the Interior Department approved or sanctioned this document,'' Katz said. ''When the governor was here, we presented the draft MOU and map to the secretary. She simply said she would take the matter under advisement. At the moment, no negotiations are occurring.''

Murkowski's proposal would establish certain criteria for recognizing trails established in Alaska under a defunct federal law. That law, passed by Congress in 1867, said ''the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.''

Congress repealed the law in 1976, but rights of way established under its terms continue to exist.

The definition of those terms, though, has been a matter of debate for decades.

Murkowski's memo to Norton proposes that, in Alaska, everyone should agree that ''construction'' of a qualifying ''highway'' required no more than ''removal of high vegetation, moving large rocks, installation of water bars, corduroy, maintenance work, ice bridges or public use over time.''

That public use could be by ''foot, horse, dog sled, snowmachine, off-road vehicle or other vehicular traffic.''

Stratton said those definitions step far beyond Congress' intent.

''There needs to be a reasonable definition of highway and a reasonable definition of construction, and construction of a highway doesn't occur with people just walking over a trail,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Katz said the definition of highway is up to the state. And in Alaska, it is fairly broad.

None of the 14 trails proposed by Murkowski cross federal parks, refuges, monuments or wilderness areas, but lie on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

''We purposely picked the first 14 in order to avoid major conflicts,'' Katz said.

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