ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — Capping off four years of legal wrangling, a judge blocked two sisters from taking over a portion of the historic Iditarod Trail that runs through their Alaska property.
Located in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, about an hour’s drive by car from downtown Anchorage, the trail in question once connected two small communities called Knik and Susitna Station.
It runs through a 240-acre property in the Big Lake area west of Knik that Kelly Dickson and Donna Defusco inherited in 2007.
The sisters initiated a superior court case five years later, seeking a quiet title to the property, free of public easements and rights-of-way.
Alaska objected on the basis of the two rights-of-way traversing the property that the state said are public.
It said fur traders, miners, skiers, dog mushers and neighboring homesteaders made regular use of the Knik to Susitna trail since the late 1800s, and that use of the other, aptly named Homestead Road, began soon after Dickson and Defusco’s father, Benjamin Cowert, applied for a homestead in 1958.
The case grew into a 27-day bench trial spanning from January through March of this year, with testimony from 20 witnesses and 400 exhibits.
Alaska’s attorneys applauded after Judge Catherine Easter ruled for it on June 14.
“The state is extremely pleased with the outcome of the case and the court’s confirmation of these important and historically significant public rights-of-way,” Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general for Alaska’s Department of Law, said in an email.
Now wound up in a 57-page decision, the case provided a glimpse into the evolution of land use in the state — beginning with Alaska Native tribes, Russian fur traders, gold miners and the early days of mail service by dog team, to the founding of the railroad, to the cookie-cutter subdivisions of modern-day homesteads.
Easter said Revised Statute 2477 entitles the public to use the historic Iditarod Trail across Dickson and Defusco’s property. The 1866 law allows states and local governments to claim trails across federal land by frequent use, without any formal claim.
As for the Homestead Road route, Easter said long-term public use — known as a prescriptive easement — allows legal use by “highway vehicles, dog mushers, skiers, snowmachiners, hunters, hikers, bikers, off-road vehicles, and other low-impact recreational uses.”
One complication the court had to resolve involved just which Iditarod Trail was in question: the historic Iditarod trail or the congressionally designated Iditarod National Historic Trail operated by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Adding to the confusion, neither trail is part of the famed Iditarod, an annual sled-dog race that takes place partly on what is also called the Iditarod Trail.
Both sisters are longtime residents of California, having left Alaska 30 years ago, but Dickson, a teacher, had been using Google Earth to survey the property in 2007 when her mother died.
It was then that she first noticed the Homestead Road crossing a corner of the estate.
Dickson believed she had a right block off all use of Homestead Road in 2008 based on a poorly worded memo from a natural resource representative that suggested neither of the two routes crossing her family’s homestead were part of the federally maintained Iditarod National Historic Trail.
She removed the blockade, however, during the pendency of the court case.
Dickson and Defusco’s parents had blocked off the historic Iditarod trail meanwhile back in 1983, after a state survey conducted that year showed the trail crossed through their property and found documentation of its use for early Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races.
Dog mushers used the trail to stage the State Centennial Race in 1967 and again in 1969. The centennial race was a precursor to the current Iditarod sled dog race, according to 1978 race champion Dick Mackey, who testified at the trial.
After Cowert blocked and posted no trespassing signs on the trail, the race was rerouted starting in 1984 to Homestead Road. Lack of snow moved the trail race to its present route, beginning farther north in Willow.
The court heard evidence that the historic Iditarod Trail traversing Dickson and Defusco’s property had been used in the last gold rush.
It began in Seward, a harbor town of southcentral Alaska where ships dropped off miners and picked up their gold hauls for transport back to the Lower 48, and ended in Nome, 1,000 miles to northwest on the Bering Sea coast.
Dickson and Defusco had also argued that the Alaska Road Commission abandoned the historic trail after maintaining a realigned portion as late as the 1920s.
Easter said abandonment did not cede the property right to the trail, only that the railroad commission opted not to spend any additional resources on it.
Even if the railroad commission did abandon it, the judge found, “the public’s subsequent use of the ‘historic Iditarod Trail’ across plaintiff’s property constituted public acceptance of an R.S. 2477 grant.”
Easter’s ruling provides for a 100-foot wide right-of-way across Dickson and Defusco’s property, a much larger easement than the original historic trail.
Easter also rejected the sisters’ claim that access to Homestead Road is not an issue since there are now three roadways bordering the property that provide enough access to homes and trails.
“Homestead Road is also used by landowners in the area,” the ruling states. “For many of these landowners, this is the only access they have to their property.”
“The court finds clear and convincing evidence that a public prescriptive easement in the location of Homestead Road crosses plaintiff’s property,” Easter added.
Easter called the evidence overwhelming and proof that the public has enjoyed continuous and uninterrupted use of Homestead Road for the required 10-year period.
“Ever since the road was constructed by homesteader Charles Sassara,” who testified at trial, “there is an overwhelming amount of evidence of the public using Homestead Road,” Easter said.
Easter also noted that more than 100 sled dog races had been run across Homestead road since 1984.
The trial featured testimony from several renowned dog mushers, dating to the beginning of the race.
In addition to Dick Mackey, who won in 1978, current competitors Dee Dee Jonrowe and Ray Redington Jr. testified that the Knik to Susitna trail was the only trail going east to west in the area.
Redington’s grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., actually founded the race and homesteaded property near the Cowerts with his wife Vi, clearing the way for future generations to live along the historic trail today.
“I’m excited by the news that we’ll be able to go back to our old trail,” Redington Jr. said in a phone interview. “It’s where I grew up running dogs with my father and grandfather, and where before that Lee Ellexson delivered the mail running his sled dogs between roadhouses.”
Lead attorney for the state, Kent Sullivan, was also pleased with the judgment. “The public is entitled to use these rights and it is important the state not give them up just because someone improperly thinks that they are entitled to keep public uses that they don’t want off their land,” Sullivan said by phone.
“It’s important that when the state owns property rights the state not have those rights taken away by not defending it,” he added. “The state’s got to stick up for what the public’s entitled to do and access benefits all the citizens of the state.”
There is an automatic path to the Alaska Supreme Court for cases of this type, but it is uncertain whether the sisters will appeal.
Leslie Need, an attorney for the women with Landye Bennett and Blumstein, issued a one-sentence comment on the ruling. “We’re reviewing the court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law and evaluating our options with our clients,” Need said.
Sullivan said the status quo for both routes will likely be maintained for now, pending any appeals process. He pointed out that Homestead Road is currently being used through the property, while the historic Iditarod Trail is not.
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