Alaska Department of Fish and Game
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No Hunting or Fishing Without Access
Public Access in Alaska
Recently two hunters were driving along a major highway in Alaska, looking for a place to hunt, and noticed many new “No Trespassing” signs. These longtime Alaskans did not want to trespass on private property but they did want to do a little hunting, and they had hunted this area before. They couldn’t find a trailhead or a designated trail along the highway; only “No Trespassing” signs.
As more land becomes privately owned, unrestricted public access is reduced. Public access is important to hunters and anglers as well as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). If you can’t get “there,” you can’t fish, hunt, trap, or otherwise enjoy our fish and wildlife resources.
As managers of Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources, ADF&G is responsible for the health of our fish and wildlife, but for more than 40 years, ADF&G has also protected public access for hunting, fishing, trapping, and viewing opportunities. We work cooperatively with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on access issues including state, federal, and municipal land conveyances, land and water management plans and access regulations, establishment or vacation of public easements, and state and federal legislation. ADF&G has staff in local communities who provide information specific to the access needs of hunters and anglers. DNR, on the other hand, focuses on access needed for settlement and resource development. Within ADF&G, the Division of Sport Fish has an Access and Defense Program that coordinates with local staff to review land actions with an eye toward protecting public access. The program also researches specific access problems, like the problem the two hunters encountered.
Why couldn’t they find access to an area where they used to hunt? The posted land along the highway was conveyed to a private landowner. But public access may still be available depending on the terms of the land conveyance. The land status was reviewed for the two hunters by the Access and Defense Program. Sometimes recently posted land is an old homestead or other private lands. In this instance, the land was conveyed to a Native corporation in settlement of their land claims under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.
The Act created 12 regional corporations and over one hundred village corporations. Each of the corporations received a land entitlement, collectively totaling 45.5 million acres. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the federal agency responsible for issuing the conveyance documents to the Native corporations.
These lands are private lands, and using them without permission is trespassing. However, under ANCSA Section 17(b), easements can be reserved across these private lands to access public lands and waters. Since the mid-1970s, ADF&G has reviewed proposed conveyances to Native corporations and recommended public easements to BLM that provide access to public lands and waters. The easements are typically trail and road easements or site easements. Site easements are provided for the public to camp for less then 24 hours, park a vehicle, or change modes of transportation. These easements only allow specific methods of access defined in the land records for the conveyance. Hunting, fishing, or any other kind of recreation is not allowed on a 17(b) easement because the underlying land belongs to the Native corporation.
Native corporations began selecting land soon after ANCSA passed and much of the land was reviewed for easements from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s. However, overlapping selections, changing interests and priorities, and changes in the law delayed conveyances unto corporation ownership until recently. Some Native corporation land selections are currently being reviewed for easement recommendations, but most of the easement recommendations were made years ago and new nominations cannot be made. Many corporations are finally receiving their long-awaited land entitlements and recently began to manage their land – including posting “No Trespassing” signs.
Managing the huge number of 17(b) easements on corporation lands is the responsibility of the BLM. The State of Alaska, Native corporations, and the BLM, meet annually to discuss issues involving 17(b) easements. The BLM estimates that as few as 10 percent of the easements are marked and trails have not been constructed on the easements. Consequently the public does not know that they exist or can’t locate them. This happened to our hunters—an easement was available but was difficult to find. Eventually, easements will be mapped and described using latitude and longitude and highway mileposts, and their locations marked on the ground.
If the two hunters had found an easement, it would have led them to public land managed by the state, a borough, or a federal agency. The state received 100 million acres of land at statehood in 1959, but the state also is just receiving its conveyances from the BLM. The DNR manages state lands and waters. Public use and access on state land is generally unrestricted unless the legislature has designated it as a park, refuge, sanctuary or other special use area. The DNR classifies state lands through area land plans, conveys land to municipalities for community development, issues land use permits and leases to commercial businesses, manages or vacates section line easements, and conducts many other land management actions. Many of these actions can affect public access. For example, when state lands are conveyed, they are generally subject to Alaska Statute Title 38 which includes reservation of easements. Such easements may be RS 2477 rights-of-way, section line easements, and easements to and along navigable and public waters. Fish and Game identifies public access needs during the planning, conveyance, and project review process for state lands.
If within an organized borough, the two hunters may have reached land managed by a borough. Borough land is public land unless conveyed into private ownership. Fish and Game reviews these borough conveyances and their subdivision plans to protect the public’s ability to continue accessing public lands and waters. For example, if an easement is reserved along a lakeshore when land is conveyed to a borough, when the borough conveys the land to a private party the land will continue to be subject to that easement.
During the review of all federal, state, and borough land conveyances, ADF&G tries to ensure that use of and access to state navigable and public waters is protected. Because of differing interpretations of “navigable,” this review can be time consuming and contentious with the owners of adjacent land.
We urge the public to do a little research before a trip to decide where you want to go, what mode of transportation you will use, who owns the land you need to cross, and if there are any easements. Contact the land owner for permission if it is private land. Information about the location of 17(b) easements can be found through the DNR Public Information Center offices in Fairbanks, Juneau, or Anchorage or on their website: http://dnr.alaska.gov/commis/pic/. The BLM public room in Anchorage also has information and can be reached at 271-5960. Please check with Native corporations or their websites for information about the location of 17(b) easements.
Ellen Simpson is an Anchorage-based habitat biologist with the Sport Fish division.
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