Judge rules Anchorage’s Stewart Trail open for recreation use

Judge rules Anchorage’s Stewart Trail open for recreation use
Published: Sep. 5, 2022 at 8:51 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A popular hiking trail in the Chugach Mountains has officially been declared a public access area, despite never having been previously listed as private land.

The ruling comes after a seven-year-long controversy surrounding use of Stewart Trail, a popular access point to McHugh Peak. In 2015, landowner Frank Pugh bought a lot that the trail crosses and claimed he had a right to shut the trail down. It was then that he erected a metal gate across the entrance and attempted to prevent the public from using the trail.

Paxson Woelber vividly describes the first time he realized Stewart’s Trail was closed off, describing it as being crazy and intimidating and even joking that it looked like a former East Germany Eagle Scout project. This encounter with the gate led him to do what he describes as “boots on the ground” research.

“We did a huge amount of interviewing local residents, we walked around the neighborhoods, we knocked on doors, we talked to people, we called the assembly people and legislatures representing those districts, and then we attended community council meetings — we really wanted it to be a deep dive,” Woelber said.

Woelber’s research led him to find that he wasn’t alone in his frustration. A group called Friends of the Stewart Trail was established in 2019 to preserve the access point.

Bert Lewis, president of the group, explains that Pugh would go so far as to try and have people arrested for using the trail, but the Municipality of Anchorage refused, creating a gray area of the law.

“Mister Pugh would call the police repeatedly on people using the trail,” Lewis said. “There was a letter that had said it was public access from the municipality. So then people would then show that to police officers, who were contacting them about trespassing, and say look, the municipality took this stance, and then the municipal attorney said, look, we aren’t going to prosecuting anyone for trespass on this trail.”

That gray area is now black and white. On Thursday, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby ruled that the public has legal right to use the trail, creating a huge win for public access.

“Public access to the wilderness is such an important part of living here, I’m really interested in how these things happen and why they happened, and the law, individual actions — all these different things that come together to shape the city we live in,” Woelber said.

However, the ruling did not mention removal of the gate specifically. Pugh has the right to file a motion for reconsideration. Typically a motion must be filed within 30 days from the date of the decision. Lewis says that with the new ruling, he is hopeful the gate will be ordered to be taken down.

Alaska’s News Source reached out to Pugh for comment, who wrote in an email that only a full, unedited discussion of the matter with him and other area residents would be acceptable.

“I don’t think that this format is adequate for the breadth of the story that needs to be told which most importantly includes the voices of the affected neighbors,” Pugh said.