Stewart Trail blockader Frank Pugh demands arrest of Landmine team and elected officials

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.”

Click here to read the order denying the motion for summary judgement.

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.

Further developments

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

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Nunya Bidness
1 year ago

Alaskans must insist on keeping our rights of way open, and not allow private lock up of public footways.

In England and Scotland, landowners have to provide gates or stiles, and walkers and hikers might have to wait for hostile bulls or boar pigs to move away before entering, but those footpaths have been kept open for over a millenium.

Samantha M
1 year ago

I encountered Frank Pugh on the Sewart HT sometime in 2015 or 2016. He told me to sign his “Access Agreement” and when I refused he became angry and confrontational, and started yelling. I was by myself and the situation was very unsettling. Frank Pugh is a sad, angry bully. I would hike the trail more but I believe that interacting with Pugh is a safety risk for hikers. The Municipality should ideally step up and at bare minimum let Frank know that he has to stop threatening people. If APD is responding to anyone, it should be Pugh.

Samantha M
1 year ago
Reply to  Samantha M

I would also like to point out that based on this article and my conversation with others, Pugh is attempting to use APD as some kind of private security force to intimidate people for legal hiking. Pugh should be cited for abusing our city’s police resources, which are badly needed elsewhere.

Peter Thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  Samantha M

Pugh needs to be cited and fined for abuse of police resources. What an insufferable, egotistical jerk.

1 year ago
Reply to  Samantha M

Pugh is just another “law and order” conservative who believes that he can break the law and sic the police on anyone who frustrates him. In all seriousness I 100% believe that the city needs to start fining Pugh every time he tries to get people arrested for walking on the Stewart Trail. The Municipality has told Pugh over and over again that they will not arrest people for using the trail.

John Weddleton
1 year ago

The AM regarding allowing Bill Falsey to work on this issue has not been voted on by the Assembly. It will be on the agenda for August 10.

Paxson Woelber
1 year ago
Reply to  John Weddleton

Thank you for the feedback. I spoke with Assembly Member Constant about phrasing that line correctly, but if it’s still unclear I’ll take another crack at it.

Frank Pugh's Gate
1 year ago

For a time Mr. Pugh was the head of the Rabbit Creek Community Council. His tenure was extremely controversial and I cannot say the council accomplished much. I don’t know if you are aware but Mr. Pugh is everywhere, and I mean everywhere, in Republican and Conservative circles these days. He without a doubt believes that the Bronson Administration is an ally and will help him in his efforts to close the trail and arrest “trespassers.” Whether he is right to think this, we will find out soon enough.

Peter Thompson
1 year ago

If Pugh thinks that the Bronson administration will do his bidding and shut down a public trail he is a moron.

Retired journalist
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Thompson

That would be a stupid thing for Bronson to do, which at this point suggests it’s pretty likely

1 year ago

There is a very similar situation at Ram Valley in Eagle River as mentioned in the article. Ridiculous that it is happening because there is a parcel of municipal property that offers access but is not developed as a parking lot and trail. Please continue cover this important topic. Chugach State Park is celebrating 51 years as Alaska’s most accessible and well-used park. Please shine a light on the efforts of these Johnny-come-lately’s who are cutting off public access to create their own private parks.

Friends of the Stewart Trail
1 year ago

The Friends of the Stewart Public Trail, INC was formed to pursue reestablishing non-motorized public access to the Stewart Trail – that means taking the gate down and allowing access on the trail. If you want to support our cause to open the Stewart Trail and Chugach State Park access we are raising money to fund the litigation Since our July 15 meeting we have raised over $32,000!   Thank you everyone that has stepped up to support our cause. For those of you who have not yet donated – now is the time.   To continue our fund-raising effort… Read more »

D. W. T.
1 year ago

Ivan and Oro Stewart were wonderful people who cared about the community and, in line with the spirit of many who lived in this area, they did not care one bit if people used the Stewart Trail to access public lands. Pugh is trying to hold these lands hostage for money, plain and simple. If he had tried to pull this stunt 20 or 30 years ago his stupid gate would have been pulled down overnight and he would have been shunned. I agree that it is a sad reflection on our city that he has been allowed to get… Read more »