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DOT Seeks 300-foot-wide Easement Across State Lands for Highway Upgrade Near Moose Pass

Seward Highway milepost 25.5 to 36 project area map. Image courtesy Alaska DOT&PF.
Seward Highway milepost 25.5 to 36 project area map. Image courtesy Alaska DOT&PF.

By Rick Smeriglio for SCN — As part of its milepost 25.5 to 36 project, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities has applied to Department of Natural Resources for a 300-foot-wide easement across state lands. In effect, the state would document that it has granted itself permission to cross its own land and in doing so, would grant DOT&PF management authority to maintain the Seward Highway within a corridor north and south of Moose Pass.

According to Christopher Minguez, natural resource specialist with DNR, which has authority to grant the easement or not, even though certain old maps and documents may show a public right of way across state lands on DOT&PF‘s highway easement, no such easement exists. He characterized DOT&PF’s action as a clean up application to come into compliance with old easement laws. Minguez cited poor documentation in the way former federal land (Chugach National Forest) transferred to state ownership with the Seward Highway already in place. Original pre-statehood documentation shows an easement width of 300 feet. Unless otherwise surveyed, that means 150 feet on either side of the centerline. For the highway as built and across other ownerships, DOT&PF often uses a 200-foot-wide right of way.

Normally, an action of this nature would have more public involvement Minguez explained. He said that because granting the easement would merely bring DOT&PF into compliance with what many regard as the legal status quo, DNR could accept less public involvement. The public can appeal DNR‘s decision. Minguez said that he has received no complaints or appeals to date, but has gotten a couple of telephone calls about procedure. He said that DNR wanted to ensure through good administrative procedure, that the public continued to have full use of the highway as managed by DOT&PF. Minguez said that DNR does not provide timelines and could not say when it might grant the easement.

At an informational meeting in Moose Pass on April 6, DOT&PF surveyor and right of way engineer Eric Fuglestad explained his agency’s intent in seeking the 300-foot-wide easement across state lands. The state owns the Seward Highway itself. The highway existed before statehood.

“What we are looking for is management authority of a 300-foot corridor along the Seward Highway. That’s in conformance with the original public land order designation for highways widths from territorial days that the state of Alaska inherited or was quit claimed by the federal government. I believe it’s also in conformance with the Kenai Peninsula DNR Management Plan … where they recognize that it is a through road. That’s the reason for a 300-foot corridor through state lands … We want rights. And we want rights that are specifically located,” Fuglestad said.

Fuglestad emphasized that the 300-foot corridor would not include current federal land, borough land, private land or Mental Health Lands Trust land, all of which exist in the project area. He said that DOT&PF did not seek 300 feet across MHLT lands at this time. He called it premature to consider that option absent a specific design for the upgraded highway. DOT&PF would have to buy private land including MHLT lands if it needed more space to upgrade the highway. Fuglestad said that DOT&PF did not seek a 300-foot-wide corridor on National Forest land that the highway crosses between Upper Trail and Tern lakes.

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US government brass survey marker dated 1923 and set into a small boulder along the Seward Highway near Moose Pass. Photo by R. Smeriglio.
US government brass survey marker dated 1923 and set into a small boulder along the Seward Highway near Moose Pass. Photo by R. Smeriglio.

DOT&PF has completed its preliminary mapping and surveying for the boundary of the highway project from milepost 25.5 to 36.

When specifically asked if any developed private property in the heart of Moose Pass encroached on the highway, Fuglestad answered, “Nothing that has jumped out at me right now … There are things that are getting close, that may not be in conformance with code … Within the townsite of Moose Pass, within the US Survey [US Survey 2676, plat approved 1947], there is a 66-foot-wide strip along a centerline. It is not the same centerline today [as it was when originally surveyed] so what you do is look for property lines within the townsite of Moose Pass.”

Fuglestad said that he would not call the 66-foot-wide strip a right of way. He preferred to call it a parcel of un-subdivided land. The original surveyed townsite extends for about one-half mile from the Stafford subdivision on the south to the Wesley subdivision on the north. It encompasses downtown Moose Pass. Greater Moose Pass extends farther. Fuglestad said that US surveys did not grant easements or rights of way. The un-subdivided land in the 66-foot-wide strip remained National Forest until the USDA Forest Service granted an easement to the Federal Highway Administration in 1978.

At milepost 30 of the Seward Highway, on the outside of a broad curve, there  exists a parcel of land on the shore of Upper Trail Lake, much beloved by Moose Passers, referred to as “the ball diamond”. USDA Forest Service conveyed the parcel to state of Alaska, but while so doing, retained certain rights. The 300-foot corridor sought by DOT&PF would apply to the ball diamond as state land. Kenai Peninsula Borough has selected the ball diamond for conveyance to itself from state of Alaska. As well, DNR planners from the same agency that may grant DOT&PF its corridor, have proposed adding the ball diamond to the Kenai River Special Management Area, essentially a state park.

When asked how all these parties might work together or not, Fuglestad said, “These are not necessarily incompatible; you can have layered interests. It happens all the time … What we’re asking for [management authority in the 300-foot corridor] does not impact the use that the federal government identified that it wanted to keep.”

Project manager Cynthia Ferguson characterized the project as in its “early days” for design. DOTP&F still seeks public input. It has just started contacting other state and federal agencies to assess their concerns. About two dozen people attended the informational meeting in Moose Pass. Half that many reportedly attended a similar event at the SeaLife Center in Seward earlier in the day. For additional information go to www.sewardhighway25to36.com.

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