A years-long property dispute near the Chilkoot River Bridge boiled over last week when individuals claiming to defend Native subsistence fishing rights removed a small boulder blocking vehicle access to the Chilkoot River.

Private property owners Rosalie and Reuben Loewen had previously installed signs and rocks at the site to prevent people from crossing on to their land with vehicles and driving down to the river, which they say causes erosion and harms the ecosystem.

Natives say they should be able to drive down to the river to harvest eulachon as they traditionally have, especially because elders and individuals with disabilities can’t make it on foot.

The issue is wrapped up in an accretion lawsuit that includes who owns a small piece of land near the bridge used to access the river. The Loewens claim that in all likelihood they own the parcel, but Native users believe the land is in the state’s right-of-way and can’t be blocked off by a private landowner.

The dispute started in 2013 when the Loewens filed for accretion of their property on the west side of the Chilkoot River, near the bridge.

According to state law, when a property owner’s property line is marked by a river, the person owns land up to the mean high water mark. Because of glacial rebound, the mean high water mark changes over decades. Filing for accretion allows property owners to clearly and legally mark the land that they own.

When the Loewens filed, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Chilkoot Indian Association intervened with the help of Sealaska corporation. The groups claimed a “prescriptive easement” on the property, a right to continued access based on sustained, traditional use.

Loewen said she has no problem allowing people to walk across her property to access fishing areas; she just doesn’t want them driving down to the river and up and down the bank. “I feel as a responsible guardian of this place, I’m not going to say, ‘Yeah, sure, drive across my land down into the riverbed,’ because I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.

 “People are really upset that there is private ownership here, and I can totally understand that. But it exists. And we all just have to sit down at the table and deal with it. People don’t want us to own that land, but we do own it, so we are part of the conversation on how it gets used,” she added.

The Loewens have placed signs at the disputed site stating “Pedestrians welcome. No vehicles,” but people have taken them down. They then installed rocks to prevent vehicle access.

Bob Duis, treasurer for the Alaska Native Brotherhood, said people got fed up with the boulders blocking access for the past two seasons and went down there last week with a come-along and removed them. “Some of the people decided that this had gone on long enough and they went down and moved the rocks,” Duis said.

“The owners there were saying they would allow people to walk down there and the elders were saying they couldn’t walk down there, they needed their vehicles to participate and they needed to have the path open,” Duis said.

Sally Burattin of Klukwan supervised the rock removal. Burattin, 73, said she has been using that area to fish for eulachon as long as she can remember. “We have every right to use that,” Burattin said.

When Rosalie Loewen came down to watch what they were doing and asked them to stop, Burattin told the men operating the come-along to continue. “They started to stop and I said, ‘Who called me to come out here to put a stop to this?’ I said, ‘You guys called me. Now continue please.’” So they continued and I said, ‘Move it out of the way.’”

Burattin said the area is important to her because her parents and other elders fished there. Vehicle access is critical because many elders are disabled or too old to access the river on foot, she said. “It’s only for a week to 10 days that that land is going to be used (for eulachon fishing). So what’s the beef?” Burattin asked.

Regardless of the ownership of the chunk of land, Loewen said, the area isn’t going to be very accessible to the less able-bodied. “It’s not handicapped accessible. Even if you drive, it’s not going to make it handicapped accessible. This is the outside; this is the riverbank. As a property owner, I can’t make it handicapped accessible, and I don’t really feel like I have a responsibility to do that.”

At the crux of the dispute about whether the roadside parcel of land is a DOT right-of-way or a part of the Loewens’ property is a preliminary plat of the land. The map appears to show the Chilkoot River Bridge’s right-of-way extending to the area in question, Duis said.

“It appeared the plat map (the Loewens) had provided the court showed the rocks they had placed were not on their property at all. They were on the DOT right-of-way,” Duis said.

But the plat map is only preliminary and hasn’t been finalized by surveyors, Loewen said. The preliminary plat shows a “bite” taken out of the Loewens’ land, though Loewen has contacted DOT’s land survey manager Randal Davis about whether that bite accurately represents a right-of-way. “The DOT guys have said, ‘Not really, you should probably have all of this land.’ So we’re not sure,” Loewen said.

The accretion claim is still tied up in the courts. Since filing in 2013, there have been numerous run-ins down at the site. Loewen said she sometimes will go down to the river to explain the issue and assure people she isn’t a bad person for trying to protect the land from erosion.

“Some conversations have been more successful than others. And some people just start yelling at me just for being there,” Loewen said.

People have screamed at Loewen about “stomping on graves” when she walks on a trail through the wooded area near the cemetery, and have scared her children, Loewen said.  

Burattin and others feel they are the ones who have been treated rudely, and that Loewen has lost her temper with them.

ANB treasurer Duis said he tried to call the state trooper to step in, but the trooper didn’t want to touch the issue. “The trooper said it was in a court case, and because it was an ongoing court action that he could not do anything either way. He said everybody should wait until the courts told people what to do.”

Loewen said that is the philosophy she has been trying to follow. Loewen’s lawyers, Sealaska’s lawyers, DOT right-of-way experts and surveyors all have been working on this issue for years, and Loewen said she is waiting for them to determine the area’s final plat and ownership.

“The DOT guys and the surveyors are the experts and they are going to come up with the final answer,” Loewen said. “The lawyers are all in on the conversation. Maybe the people (who are upset about the matter) are not in on this conversation about, ‘Hey, we are working to get this set up the right way.’”

Burattin’s answer to the problem is a lot simpler. “The solution is to shut their mouths and let us be,” she said.