Erasing History

Contributed by Alan Larson

Many Alaskans are unaware of the Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) digital bulletin board posting public notices affecting our land rights and public easements. As such, Alaska is being negatively and irreparably harmed. On March 19, 2018, one post sought to erase indigenous history and public access rights, in spite of the Alaska Statutes designed to protect us from such departmental overreaches. Preliminary Decision EV-3-271 intentionally was kept out of the public eye by DNR, who never sought to directly contact effected community members ranging from Copper Center to Eklutna, never reached out to local tribes or even reported this decision to the various local representatives or the multiple community councils impacted. Instead, DNR put notice on their virtual bulletin board, where realistically few of Alaskans even know to look.

What’s so important about EV-3-271? It effectively eliminates hundreds of years of our State’s history. As a member of an Athabascan tribe, this trail was part of my ancestor’s highway system extending from Copper Center down to the Kenai Peninsula. My family from time immemorial to present extensively used this particular trail, known as the Chickaloon-Knik-Nelchina Trail (CKN). Time immemorial may seem like a far distant memory to cultures outside of Alaska, but to Athabascans, time immemorial is only four generations away. Four generations ago, no white man had ever walked these trails.

The first documented non-Athabascan to navigate the CKN Trail was Captain Edwin F. Glenn in 1898. It was my ancestors who served as guides on Glenn’s journey. Later, miners would use these routes, and the trail would be identified as a RS 2477 federally protected Right-of-Way (ROW) under the mining law. Protection of these trails was later transferred to the State with provisions to ensure future public access. Unfortunately, the statutes have been reduced through departmental decisions that don’t uphold the intent of the law, effectively allowing DNR the power to erase our heritage with a simple post on a virtual bulletin board.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter that DNR previously concluded, “The Alaska Heritage Resources Survey has identified eleven cultural resources within the Moose Range… The trails traversing the Range have been used historically for many years, specifically and most importantly… the Chickaloon-Knik-Nelchina (CKN) Trail.” DNR’s original management strategy from the 1986 Moose Range report also concluded, “All administrative actions within the Moose Range will abide by the Alaska Historic Preservation Act (AS 41.35.010) which calls for the state to preserve and protect the historic, prehistoric, and archaeological resources of the state.” DNR mapped the Heritage Resources, noting “high potential” for the CKN Trail. DNR’s report ultimately concluded, “The Chickaloon-Knik-Nelchina Trail should receive priority for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.”

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In spite of all these facts, DNR is now eliminating part of the CKN Trail. The intent of the RS 2477 statutes and the Alaska Historic Preservation Act are meaningless. RS 2477 protections guarantee public ROWs cannot be eliminated without a public process or without an equivalent trail. While the newer trail looks nice, its ROW has a written section allowing DNR at any time, for any reason to close the ROW without a public process. Essentially, the new trail can be eliminated by a simple departmental decision. This cannot be done on the original trailhead, which is why DNR was supposed to inform the public and receive public input. Additionally, the Alaska Historic Preservation Act states the State has a legal responsibility to protect our historic resources, which includes the cultural heritage embodied in our trails, from loss so they may pass undiminished to future generations. EV-3-271 vacates the original trailhead, eliminating anyone from using it in the future, the exact opposite of the Alaska Historical Preservation Act’s intent.

Why would DNR take this contrary position you might wonder? They say for the best interest of public safety, unfortunately DNR didn’t actually consult the Dept. of Public Safety for the facts. In a public information request acquired from the Alaska Dept. of Public Safety, a spreadsheet clearly shows the indigenous trailhead has less of a public safety threat than the newer trailhead. The original trailhead had 13 incidents over an eleven-year period from 2005 to 2016. The new trailhead had 64 incidents, including 1 death, over that same period of time. Considering the facts, concern for public safety cannot be the motivation for DNR’s outrageous decision to eliminate our heritage and protected public ROW.

For six years I have been fighting DNR’s encroachment against the public’s rights to use this trail in acquiescence to the new private landowners. While I can partially sympathize with the private property owners as some trail users abused the surrounding lands, most of the abuse was done out of ignorance for two major reasons. First, DNR failed to property identify the trail from private property with signage, and second the private property owners closed off the public ROW putting up dangerous blockades which included nails, barbed wire, chains, and ditches that were an immediate threat to public safety. Many Alaskans have public ROWs traversing through their private property, but they don’t get to decide to close off a road simply because they don’t want it there.

Our indigenous trails, later identified as RS2477 trails, have been Alaska’s history. Most major highways and roads navigate alongside or through these original trails. Many more of our trails will become major roads in the future. The State needs to preserve our protected public ROWs and history, not spend thousands of dollars to eliminate them, circumventing the intent of our statutes. The CKN Trail currently serves as the major public access route to the Nelchina Recreation Area, and there is room for more than one trailhead in the area. Our history doesn’t have to be erased.