Alaska Sues Feds Over Trails in Historic Fortymile Region
Powerful ally gained in fight
FAIRBANKS - Gold miners who have been fighting the federal government for years over access to their mining claims in the Fortymile region gained a powerful ally this week.
The state on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the federal government asserting ownership of multiple trail rights-of-way around the Taylor Highway community of Chicken that traditionally have been used by miners to access their claims but have been restricted in recent years by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“Litigation is always a last resort, but we will not stand by while the federal government restricts public access to state-owned rights-of-way,” the state’s attorney general, Michael Geraghty, stated in a news release Wednesday.
Gov. Sean Parnell called the state’s lawsuit “an important step in countering federal overreach with regard to state-owned property interests and in protecting the livelihoods of our residents.”
The state specified six trails in the lawsuit that total 65 miles and encompass a 400-square-mile area. The six trails include the Chicken to Franklin Trail (11 miles); the Chicken Ridge Trail (23 miles); the Hutchinson Creek Trail (6.5 miles); the Chicken Ridge Alternate Trail (18 miles); the Myers Fork Spur Trail (2.5 miles); and the Montana Creek Spur Trail (4 miles). All the trails originate in Chicken, located at 68 Mile Taylor Highway, and were established by gold miners more than 100 years ago, according to the state.
Fairbanks gold miner Sheldon Maier, who owns mining claims in the area and is president of the Fortymile Mining Association, said it’s about time the state finally stuck up for miners who have been being harassed by the BLM for more than three decades.
“We’ve been pushing the state to do this for a long, long time,” said Maier, who with his wife, Janne, owns multiple mining claims on Montana Creek, about 30 miles east of the Taylor Highway. “We very much support what the state is finally doing.”
The Maiers have been fighting with the BLM since they began mining on Montana Creek 13 years ago, Sheldon Maier said. Federal officials have tried to force the Maiers to pay thousands of dollars to get permits to use the trails and placed numerous restrictions on using them, such as the number of trips that can be made and what kind of vehicles can be used.
“It was at the point where BLM was threatening to arrest me and fine me for trespassing,” Sheldon Maier said.
Maier solicited the help of U.S. Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and the late Ted Stevens to get a five-year permit to access his mining claims without paying a fee, but that permit expired on Dec. 31. BLM has told him he doesn’t qualify for a similar fee waiver to get a new permit, even though nothing has changed, Maier said.
“We’re hopeful the state takes this all the way to court and sets precedence with it so we don’t have to fight with the feds over access again,” Maier said. “When you’re a private citizen and you try to fight government, you don’t have much of a chance.”