An Outdoor View: More on wildness

As I mentioned in this column last week, I like the fact most of Alaska’s lands are owned by the public. It’s certainly better than the alternative.

I can see how people might want little to do with any government, but again, what we have is better than the alternative.

Trouble is, too many people fear, hate and distrust the “gov’mint.” Some distrust is healthy, but too much does no one any good. I consider the “feds” as public servants who we pay to do a job. They don’t always run things the way I would, which is probably just as well. Like it or not, they are the stewards of most of the places we go to fish, hunt and enjoy other outdoor activities in Alaska.

Kamishak River, Little Kamishak River and Strike Creek enter saltwater a few miles south of much-storied McNeil River. The Kamishak drainage is the only place I’ve ever been where I heard wolves howling nearby while I was fishing. Located on the west side of Cook Inlet, these streams are in publicly owned Katmai National Park, a huge hunk of wild, unimproved guv’mint land.

On the southwest side of Kodiak Island, the Ayakulik River meanders through a wilderness so green it hurts your eyes. The silence, if not for the chittering of eagles and the occasional wail of an angler in a mismatched bout with a salmon or steelhead, would be complete. The way the Kodiak brown bears and Sitka black-tailed deer act, you’d think they owned the place. Instead, it’s in a corner of the publicly owned Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. More guv’mint land.

Vast and beautiful Prince William Sound, known for its superlative scenery and protected waters, is what Puget Sound was before it “went private.” It’s a place where you can anchor a boat in a bay that still looks like it did in 1778, when Capt. James Cook sailed into the sound. Its islands and nearly all of its surrounding lands are part of the publicly owned Chugach National Forest. More guv’mint land.

In April of 1964, when a job in Fairbanks prompted me to move there from Yakima, Washington, the U.S. government was landlord for almost all of Alaska. Then oil was discovered on the North Slope, and change wasn’t long in coming.

Now, a half-century later, only 63.8 percent Alaska is in federal ownership. The State of Alaska now owns 24.1 percent. The remaining 12.1 percent is owned by cities, boroughs and private owners, including 12 Native Corporations and more than 200 villages. While not all of the land owned by cities and boroughs are now privately owned, we can assume they eventually will be.

If you look only at percentages, 12.1 percent doesn’t seem like much private land, but this land isn’t swamps or mountaintops. It’s 45.2 million acres located where people would want to live. Much of it is easily accessible. It’s probably more private land than can foreseeably be needed for homes and cities.

The main thing people don’t like about public lands seems to be the regulations that come with them. However, regulations are not all bad. Consider the upper Kenai River, the part that begins about 50 miles upstream from the mouth. It has a wilderness flavor not found downstream. Not coincidentally, at about River Mile 50, private property ends and public lands begin. Despite being one of the most popular fishing areas in the state, the public-owned land along the upper river has retained its wildness. Regulations have kept it that way.

One of the main complaints of anglers fishing the lower Kenai River is “too many guides.” On the upper Kenai, on the other hand, the number of guides and the number of trips they can take have been limited since the late 1980s. The difference is that the upper river is managed by federal land managers. State land managers have yet to do anything about limiting guides on the lower Kenai, despite constant complaints by the public.

It’s wrong to use “government-owned” when referring to land ownership in the U.S. U.S. citizens own so-called federal lands, and state residents own so-called state lands. Governments own nothing. They only manage public land.

Woody Guthrie had it right. This land is your land, this land is my land. And when you see it as “your” land, it’s a whole ‘nother deal.

Next week: More reasons to like public ownership of lands.

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Les Palmer can be reached at

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