In 2019, the Alaska Landmine published the special feature “One Man’s Mountain,” which details the controversy surrounding the historic Stewart Trail on the Anchorage Hillside. As previously reported, the Stewart Trail, which traverses upper Potter Valley and provides access to Chugach State Park, was built in the 1960s by Ivan and Oro Stewart. The Municipality of Anchorage has long held that the trail sits on a well-established public easement.
In 2012, Anchorage resident Frank Pugh and wife Oksana purchased a 120-acre lot bisected by the Stewart Trail. In 2015, Frank Pugh erected an elaborate metal gate topped with barbed wire across the entrance of the trail, thereby blocking its use and granting him de-facto control of over 1,000 acres of the Anchorage Hillside. The Municipality sent three letters to Pugh instructing him to remove the unauthorized gate (1, 2, 3). Pugh refused, instead installing an elaborate surveillance system on the Stewart Trail, beginning armed patrols, and initiating sometimes-tense confrontations with hikers. A group of Anchorage residents called Friends of the Stewart Trail (FOST) formed in 2018 to push for reopening of the trail, and is currently suing Pugh and a co-defendant to remove the gate and cease confrontations with trail users.
Game camera and gate installed by Frank Pugh. Pugh uses an extensive network of game cameras, some with wireless transmitters, to collect photos and videos of users of the Stewart Trail who circumvent his gate. Photographed August 3, 2021.
Now, in a bizarre twist, the Landmine has learned that in two instances Pugh contacted the Anchorage Police Department (APD) to demand the arrest of the Landmine team and two elected officials, for purportedly trespassing on Pugh’s property by using the trail in conjunction with our reporting. In the first incident, in 2019, Pugh contacted APD to demand the arrest of Landmine Editor-in-Chief Jeff Landfield and the author (Landmine Special Features Editor Paxson Woelber), the late Senator Chris Birch, and Assemblymember Christopher Constant. On August 3, 2021, Landfield and the author visited the Stewart Trail again while working on a follow-up on our initial reporting. Shortly thereafter, Pugh again contacted APD to demand our arrest, as well as the arrest of Anchorage resident Ross Johnston, who had, unbeknownst to us, used the trail on the same day. Uniformed police officers arrived at Landfield’s residence to question him, and contacted the author by phone. An officer informed the author that arrest charges were being forwarded to the municipal attorney.
In both incidents, APD has declined to write citations or make arrests. In 2019, APD told the Landmine that the department considers use of the trail a civil–as opposed to criminal–matter. APD has not taken action against any individual for accessing or using the Stewart Trail.
On August 3, Pugh sent an email to Mayor Dave Bronson and the Anchorage Assembly, bemoaning APD’s refusal to arrest members of the Alaska Landmine, Birch, or Constant in 2019. In the email, Pugh states his belief that the arrests were likely stymied due to intervention by senior members of the Berkowitz administration, including, possibly, by former Mayor Berkowitz himself.
To read Pugh’s full email, click here.
Annotated game camera footage sent by Pugh to Mayor Bronson and the Anchorage Assembly. To view the full PDF of images compiled and emailed by Pugh, click here.
The Stewart Trail goes to court
In late 2018, a group called Friends of the Stewart Trail filed a lawsuit against Pugh and co-defendant “Mattanaw” to force the removal of the gate and an end to confrontations with trail users. FOST collected dozens of affidavits from longtime trail users and filed for a motion of summary judgment in mid-2020, in effect arguing that a trial should be unnecessary because no facts were in dispute. On June 6, 2021, the request for summary judgment was denied. According to the order, authored by Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby:
“The court concludes as follows: (1) There is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the public’s historic use was hostile to the property rights of Defendants’ predecessors in interest; (2) as the record stands now, there is undisputed evidence that the public’s use of Trail was open and notorious and continuous for the statutory period; but (3) although Mattanaw failed to proffer admissible evidence disputing the sworn statements of Plaintiff’s affiants, he has disputed the accuracy of certain aspects of the affiants’ statements–as a pro se litigant, the court will afford Mattanaw an opportunity to cross-examine Plaintiff’s affiants at trial regarding their statements as those statements relate to the elements of a prescriptive easement.”
Friends of the Stewart Trail summarized the legal situation in a July 20, 2021 email to members, stating, in part:
“The judge did not award summary judgment to FOST. However, the reasons she gave had more to do with the particulars of the very high standard for granting summary judgment without a trial, rather than the legal details as to whether or not Stewart Trail is a public prescriptive easement. In fact, she agreed quite decidedly with our legal arguments. We believe, based on her conclusions on summary judgment, that FOST will prevail at trial. With the summary judgment motion much of the work to gather materials and witnesses for a trial has already been done.
The Board remains 100% committed to proceeding to trial. The trial is scheduled for January 2022. It will not be a jury trial; the judge will determine the outcome (though it will be subject to appeal).”
FOST is currently represented by longtime Anchorage attorney Tom Meacham. An August 6, 2021 memorandum from the Anchorage Assembly, authored by Assemblymember Christopher Constant, proposes that the Assembly should not object to former Municipal Manager Bill Falsey representing FOST. By law, former municipal employees are restricted for one year in their ability to work on issues that they were previously involved in at the municipality. The memorandum will be voted on on August 10. Pugh is represented by Anchorage attorney Kevin Fitzgerald.
The Stewart Trail, with McHugh Peak in the background. Photographed August 3, 2021.
Access issues mount across Chugach State Park
Problems with access to the Stewart Trail are mirrored at other access points across Chugach State Park, which has seen increased use in recent years. This summer, dozens of hikers were fined under a rarely-enforced statute for parking on the shoulder of public roadways near the South Fork Eagle River trailhead, following numerous requests from residents to ban roadside parking, fine motorists, and cancel new trailbuilding projects in the park. Residents in upper Bear Valley have demanded that the Anchorage Assembly agree not to expand parking near the miniscule Honey Bear trailhead. And last year, access to Ram Valley, which required hikers to traverse the edge of a private parcel before reaching a public pedestrian easement leading to the large alpine valley, was closed by a landowner.
Evening on the Stewart Trail. Photographed August 3, 2021.
The Landmine has requested statements from Municipal Attorney Patrick “Tito” Bergt and Municipal Manager Amy Demboski regarding the position of the Bronson administration on access and use of the Stewart Trail.
This is a developing story.
Stewart Trail series
This article is part of the Alaska Landmine's coverage of the Stewart Trail access controversy