On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly voted to appropriate $20,000 for signage and trails to facilitate public access to Anchorage’s Campbell Lake. While discussing the vote, Assembly member Randy Sulte, who owns a home on the shore of Campbell Lake, surprised fellow Assembly members when he announced that a lawsuit had been filed by two lakeside residents alleging that easements providing public access to the lake do not exist.
The vote by the Assembly comes on the heels of a $10,000 appropriation by the Alaska State House that would also fund Campbell Lake signage. That appropriation faces an uncertain future in the State Senate.
Access to and use of Campbell Lake has long been a topic of contention. After decades of claims that the lake was reserved for the exclusive use of Campbell Lake residents, whose ranks include many of Anchorage’s wealthiest and most politically influential families, the State of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage jointly stated that the public has a constitutional right to use Campbell Lake and access it via two public easements. However, despite the position held by the municipality and the state, members of the public continue to be periodically accosted and threatened by irate residents while attempting to use the lake.
The Assembly amendment funding the signage and trails was sponsored by Assembly members Christopher Constant, Daniel Volland, and Austin Quinn-Davidson. Volland stated that he had been harassed while accessing and packrafting on the lake, and that formalizing access would help prevent conflict.
After Volland spoke, Sulte announced that a lawsuit had been filed on April 21 challenging the legality of the easements. Sulte stated that he was “ambivalent” about the existence of the easements, and that he believed members of the public had sufficient access to the lake via Campbell Creek or floatplane. Sulte, who disclosed that he is a member of the Campbell Lake Owners Association, added that he would like the city to pay to dredge the lake and replace the dam, expenses that have long been borne by the public despite claims that the lake is private.
The Landmine obtained a copy of the first lawsuit filing, a complaint filed in federal court by Anchorage law firm Birch Horton Bitner & Cherot on behalf of Campbell Lake residents Dr. John Frost and Gordon Franke. The easements connecting public roadways to Campbell Lake cross lands owned by Frost and Franke. The complaint, which was filed against Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner John Boyle, in his capacity as commissioner, alleges that all section line easements in Alaska are illegal and invalid because they conflict with federal law. The complaint further claims that Alaska’s section line easements are a violation of the fourth, fifth, and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution and violate the Alaska Constitution.
Attorneys told the Landmine that the lawsuit constituted an attempt to fundamentally alter the face of public access in Alaska. If the lawsuit were to succeed, the Landmine was told, vast swaths of both private and public lands across the state would become all but inaccessible. Thousands of Alaskans would lose access to their properties, and infrastructure projects and other types of development could face significant challenges or be halted entirely.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson stated that he was agnostic on the issue of access to Campbell Lake, noting that Campbell Lake is a seaplane base under the purview of the FAA and that he had “flown off of it.”
DNR is charged with managing and defending section line easements in Alaska. During a March 29, 2023 hearing of the Senate Resources Committee on Senate Bill 92–a bill regarding state ownership of submerged lands–Jim Walker, the section chief of the Public Access Assertion and Defense Section of the Division of Mining, Land and Water, said that the department would defend access to Campbell Lake.
In response to questions about the lawsuit, Loraine Henry, the director of communications for DNR, told the Landmine,
“We intend to vigorously protect the people of Alaska’s right to access public waters. By filing this litigation in federal court, the plaintiffs are trying to overturn 100 years of established section line easements in Alaska, with potential implications for access to public lands across the state. The Departments of Law and Natural Resources look forward to defending our position that the section line easement at Campbell Lake is valid. We remain open to working with the plaintiffs and others, as we have tried in the past, on negotiating an alternative route for the easement to ensure Campbell Lake’s recreation opportunities are available to all. Having the court confirm the validity of the easement will be a positive first step.”
The Landmine reached out to David Gross, the attorney at Birch Horton Bitner & Cherot who is representing Frost and Franke, to ask who is funding the lawsuit. Gross responded:
“The focus of any media attention should be on how the Alaska Department of Natural Resources is ignoring private property rights by making certain stretches of land available to the public, when it has absolutely no right to do so. Who is funding the lawsuit has no bearing on this important issue.”
Campbell Lake series
This article is part of the Alaska Landmine's coverage of Campbell Lake access
Special FeatureThe bizarre story of Campbell Lake, the private lake that isn't
ArticleMillions of public dollars spent to dam and maintain “private” Campbell Lake
ArticleNew documents reveal coordinated effort to eliminate Campbell Lake public access
ArticleState of Alaska, Municipality of Anchorage issue joint statement: Campbell Lake is a public lake
ArticleCampbell Lake public access easements have been surveyed and marked!
ArticleCampbell Lake HOA submits letters to State alleging Campbell Lake is a private lake
ArticleProblems with Campbell Lake public access escalate
ArticleHouse Finance Committee approves marked access on Campbell Lake Easements
ArticleAnchorage Assembly funds Campbell Lake signage; lakeside residents sue to invalidate easements