AHTNA, Inc. v. State, S-17496

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtCARNEY, JUSTICE.
Docket NumberS-17496,S-17526,S-17605
Decision Date16 September 2022

AHTNA, INC., Appellant and Cross-Appellee,


Nos. S-17496, S-17526, S-17605

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 16, 2022

Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3AN-08-06337 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Andrew Guidi, Judge.

Matthew Singer and Peter A. Scully, Holland & Knight LLP, Anchorage, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Jessica M. Alloway, and Max D. Garner, Assistant Attorneys General, Anchorage, and Kevin G. Clarkson, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, and Carney, Justices. [Borghesan, Justice, not participating.]





The State claimed the right under Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477) to clear land and permit the use of boat launches, camping sites, and day use sites within an alleged 100-foot right of way centered on a road on land belonging to an Alaska Native corporation. The Native corporation sued, arguing that its prior aboriginal title prevented the federal government from conveying a right of way to the State or, alternatively, if the right of way existed, that construction of boat launches, camping sites, and day use sites exceeded its scope.

After years of litigation and motion practice the superior court issued two partial summary judgment orders. It held as a matter of law that any preexisting aboriginal title did not disturb the State's right of way over the land. It also concluded as a matter of law that the right of way was limited to ingress and egress. Because the superior court did not err when it granted the State's motion regarding aboriginal title, we affirm that grant of partial summary judgment. But because the scope of a particular RS 2477 right of way is a question of fact, we reverse its conclusion as a matter of law that the State's right of way is limited to ingress and egress.


A. The Dispute

Klutina Lake Road, known locally as the Brenwick-Craig Road, is a single-lane dirt road running approximately 25 miles along the Klutina River from Copper Center on the Richardson Highway to the outlet of Klutina Lake. Much of the road travels over land owned by Ahtna, Inc., the regional Alaska Native corporation.[1] The Ahtna Athabascan people have used and occupied the land for hundreds of years.


In 2007 the State cleared a swath of land along the road and removed one of the "permit fee stations" Ahtna had erected to collect fees for use of its land. The State claimed that it had established a 100-foot wide RS 2477 right of way for the cleared land "as early as 1899" and then again in the 1960s when the State "constructed a more official road." The State claimed its RS 2477 right of way included a broad scope of activities, such as day use, camping, boat launching, parking, and fishing, as well as the right to travel over the road.

Ahtna objected to the State's land clearing and destruction of Ahtna's property. It disputed the existence and width of any State right of way, and it argued that any right of way that might exist permitted only ingress and egress. In early 2008 Ahtna filed a complaint for declaratory judgment and an injunction regarding the State's alleged trespass on its land. Years of litigation ensued, culminating in the current appeal.

B. Statutory Background

Congress enacted RS 2477 in 1866 as part of the Lode Mining Act.[2]RS 2477 stated in its entirety: "The right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."[3] The federal government's grant of rights of way under RS 2477 "was self-executing, meaning that an RS 2477 right-of-way automatically came into existence 'if a public highway was established across public land in accordance with the law of Alaska.' "[4]


Congress repealed RS 2477 in 1976 but left existing rights of way intact.[5]In Alaska, however, authorization for RS 2477 rights of way ended no later than January 1969, when the Secretary of the Interior withdrew all public lands not already reserved.[6] Because the statute was self-executing and did not require rights of way to be recorded, the existence of an RS 2477 right of way is frequently a matter of controversy.[7]

When determining the existence and scope of an RS 2477 right of way over Native corporation land, courts must also be mindful of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).[8] Congress enacted ANCSA in 1971 "to settle all land claims


by Alaska Natives."[9] ANCSA "extinguished all claims of the Native people of Alaska based on aboriginal title in exchange for 962.5 million dollars and 44 million acres of public land."[10] Section 4 of ANCSA addresses aboriginal title:

(a) Aboriginal title extinguishment through prior land and water area conveyances
All prior conveyances of public land and water areas in Alaska, or any interest therein, pursuant to Federal law, and all tentative approvals pursuant to section 6(g) of the Alaska Statehood Act, shall be regarded as an extinguishment of the aboriginal title thereto, if any.
(b) Aboriginal title and claim extinguishment where based on use and occupancy; submerged lands underneath inland and offshore water areas and hunting or fishing rights included
All aboriginal titles, if any, and claims of aboriginal title in Alaska based on use and occupancy, including submerged land underneath all water areas, both inland and offshore, and including any aboriginal hunting or fishing rights that may exist, are hereby extinguished.
(c) Aboriginal claim extinguishment where based on right, title, use, or occupancy of land or water areas; domestic statute or treaty relating to use and occupancy; or foreign laws; pending claims
All claims against the United States, the State, and all other persons that are based on claims of aboriginal right, title, use, or occupancy of land or water areas in Alaska, or that are based on any statute or treaty of the United States relating to Native use and occupancy, or that are based on the laws of any other nation, including any such claims that are pending
before any Federal or state court or the Indian Claims Commission, are hereby extinguished.[11]

C. Proceedings

Ahtna's 2008 lawsuit sought a declaration that the land in question was "free and clear of an RS 2477 [right of way]" and an injunction to prevent the State from "further trespass upon Ahtna's lands." Ahtna acknowledged that the United States had a 60-foot-wide easement allowing public travel on the road, but argued that the State did not have an additional 100-foot-wide RS 2477 right of way. The State counterclaimed, seeking to quiet title to the claimed right of way and arguing that its RS 2477 right of way was superior to the federal one. The parties repeatedly postponed trial in the hope of reaching a settlement. In 2014 Ahtna filed a second amended complaint, which forms the basis for the present litigation.

In 2016 Ahtna moved for partial summary judgment, seeking a declaration that RS 2477 rights of way permit only ingress and egress. The State opposed. In May 2016 the superior court granted the motion. The court determined that "RS 2477, which granted rights-of-way for 'highways over public lands,' conveyed the right to pass over the land, and nothing more."

Ahtna separately moved for summary judgment "to establish that there is no RS 2477 right-of-way along the Klutina Lake Road" because then-existing aboriginal title prevented conveyance of an RS 2477 right of way. The State opposed. In June 2018 the superior court denied Ahtna's motion for summary judgment based on aboriginal title. The court assumed without deciding that "aboriginal title land was not public land before Congress enacted ANCSA and Ahtna possessed aboriginal title to the


land at issue."[12] It then concluded that ANCSA applied retroactively and that ANCSA extinguished Ahtna's aboriginal title.

The parties eventually stipulated to entry of final judgment under Alaska Civil Rule 54(b). Ahtna stipulated to the existence of a 100-foot RS 2477 right of way, "50 feet on each side of the centerline of the current location of Klutina Lake Road," and two additional 100-foot RS 2477 rights of way between the Klutina Lake Road and Klutina River, subject to its right to appeal on the basis of aboriginal title. Both parties dismissed claims, some with prejudice and some without prejudice. However, the parties "agree[d] to preserve the right to appeal legal issues already decided ... on motions for summary judgment."

Ahtna appeals the superior court's denial of summary judgment concerning aboriginal title. Ahtna also requests that we confirm the court's assumption "that the Ahtna Athabascan people held aboriginal title to the Klutina River Valley." The State cross-appeals the court's partial summary judgment order declaring that any right of way pursuant to RS 2477 is limited to the right of ingress and egress.


"We review grants of summary judgment de novo."[13] "We review a court's interpretation of statutes de novo and 'apply our independent judgment, adopting the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy.' "[14]



A. The Superior Court Did Not Err By Denying Ahtna's Motion For Summary Judgment Based On Aboriginal Title.

1. We need not decide whether the land at issue was public or non-public as a matter of law.

The superior court narrowed the issues by assuming without deciding that "aboriginal title land was not public land before Congress enacted ANCSA and Ahtna possessed aboriginal title to the land at issue." On appeal Ahtna urges us to confirm the superior court's assumption and...

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