State pursues ownership of Salcha River

SAM BISHOP

News-Miner Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON--State officials have asked the federal government for ownership of the Salcha River's bed and that of seven other rivers and lakes.

The Salcha, similar in size to the Chena River, drains a 100-mile watershed southeast of Fairbanks. Numerous recreational cabins line its banks and it is a popular waterway for hunting and fishing. The drainage also has a number of placer gold claims.

Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources have asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a recordable disclaimer of interest" on the Salcha River's bed.

Under federal law, the lands under navigable waters belong to states. However, unresolved debates about the definition of "navigable" and other disputes have prevented the state from obtaining title to most such submerged land in Alaska.

In December 2002, the Bush administration said it wanted states to ask for recordable disclaimers as a way to get their land. The disclaimer is a statement that the federal government does not own a piece of property. The disclaimers can apply not only to riverbeds but also to road rights of way, including those claimed by states under the defunct federal Revised Statute 2477.

The Bush administration said it was trying to resolve property disputes without going to court--the most common way to establish ownership. Environmental groups, though, said the new policy opened a new path for developers. Last year, they tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation in Congress that would have blocked all disclaimers in national parks and refuges.

The Salcha is not in a federal conservation area.

Dick Mylius, a state DNR spokesman, said the disclaimers would recognize the state's existing ownership.

"This is simply an administrative process that allows BLM to formally disclaim any title interest in the beds of these state-owned navigable waters and clears the cloud on the state's title," he said in a news release. "The state's title to submerged lands is somewhat clouded because it took ownership at statehood without any written documentation."

Other lands for which the state applied include those under: the Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula, the Chilkoot and Chilkat rivers and lakes, all near Haines, and the Tsirku and Klehini rivers, both tributaries of the Chilkat.

BLM will take public comment on the applications, according to the DNR news release.

The BLM is already considering state applications for Tazlina River and Lake, Klutina River and Lake, the Kvichak River and Lake Iliamna.

Washington, D.C., reporter Sam Bishop can be reached at sbishop@newsminer.com or (202) 662-8721.