Joe Vogler and RS 2477   5 comments

Joseph E. “Joe” Vogler is another Alaska character who defines us as a people. His story is integral to the Alaska post-Statehood struggle for the access promised by the Alaska Statehood Compact, reaffirmed in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and repromised by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. More than anyone else, Joe was responsible for uncovering and publicizing the broken promises.

Vogler was born in 1913 outside of Barnes, Kansas and grew up around Waterville. He won a scholarship to University of Kansas in 1929 and admitted to the Kansas State Bar in 1934. His view that then-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a communist got him fired from a job in Texas in 1942, so he moved to Alaska.

Walter Hickel was, by the way, also born in Kansas and relocated to Alaska in 1940. Despite their similar histories, they had polar opposite views on Alaska Statehood.

Vogler kicked around a bit (Kodiak, Fairbanks, Ladd Field – now Ft. Wainwright) until he began mining on Homestead Creek off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks in 1951. He also bought 320 acres along Farmers Loop Road nearer to Fairbanks and had several mining claims in the Central area.

Fairbanksans came to know Joe in the 1950s for his serious feud with Paul and Flora Greimann, operators of University Bus Lines, a private company that primarily transported students between Fairbanks and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Prior to the replacement of the Cushman Street Bridge in 1959, the old bridge (now repurposed in Nome) was too narrow to accommodate both a large vehicle such as a truck or bus, and another vehicle. Vogler and his attorney Warren A. Taylor sued University Bus Lines in 1948 in what the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner called the “Battle of the Bridge”. Vogler sought a permanent injunction against the buses straddling the center rail of the bridge. The feud continued after the Wendell Street Bridge opened in 1953 and Greimann’s buses continued using the Cushman bridge instead of the newer, wider bridge. Police were often involved in quelling these confrontations.

Vogler entered Alaska politics during the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Outraged that the federal government could still dictate how Alaska could and could not obtain its own oil on state lands even following statehood, he circulated a petition calling for Alaska’s secession from the United States. He gathered 15,000 signatures toward this end, but Congress never responded. The population of Alaska at the time was around 150,000, so the petition was not insignificant. In McPhee’s “Coming into the Country” he described Vogler canoeing to remote cabins to collect signatures. The feeling that our relationship with the federal government should end was widespread and deeply ingrained and it hasn’t really gone away.

In 1973, Volger and other Interior miners organized the Alaska Independence Party demanding a vote on independence from the United States, which Vogler characterized as still treating Alaska like a colony.

In 1974, he ran for governor and the Alaska Independence Party (AIP) candidate won enough votes to swing the election from incumbent Democrat Bill Egan to Republican Jay Hammond. Note that the “independence” candidate was a spoiler for the Democrat, even though the Democrats were the party most supportive of statehood in 1959.

The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve was created and made a part of the National Park System by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (“ANILCA”), 16 U.S.C. § 410hh(10). The Preserve is listed among the areas established as units of the National Park System to be “administered by the Secretary [of the Interior] under the laws governing the administration of such lands and under the provisions of [the ANILCA].” 16 U.S.C. § 410hh. The Secretary’s regulations, which are extra-ANILCA, require that an access permit must be obtained before operating heavy, off-road vehicles in the Preserve. In evaluating a permit application, the Park Service must provide an applicant with “adequate and feasible” access to any mine claim owned within the Preserve. The definition of “adequate and feasible” has nothing to do with conditions in Alaska. In addition, the Secretary’s regulations require a miner to submit and obtain approval of a mining plan of operations before mining his claims.

In 1984, Vogler was fed up with regulations requiring that he skid equipment in at 20 below zero and file endless mining plans that were never approved. Actually, Vogler himself never did any of this. He had neighbors who had, so he chose a different road through the yellow wood. He set out to make the statement that federal officials had no right to deny him access to his mine on the Woodchooper Creek. He began driving his D-8 Cat along the Bielenberg Trail in mid-July.

Bielenberg was, and remains, the perfect example of an RS 2477 trail. Established by miners in Alaska’s Gold Rush era of the early 20th century, it starts on Portage Creek Road about 1 mile southeast of Circle Hot Springs (near Central), then heads southeastward until it connects with an improved dirt road that connects Woodchopper and Coal Creeks. It’s about 40 miles long and had been in existence and under fairly continuous use for more than 50 years by 1980. It’s one of the landmarks pilots use should they need to set down in the wilderness because it is and was in 1980 clearly visible from the air. The State of Alaska laid claim to the right-of-way in 1968 as part of the Alaska State Lands Settlement BEFORE the federal government created the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve under ANILCA. It was and probably still is impossible to traverse the black spruce swamp with a truck or other wheeled vehicle in the summer. This is not a road. It was originally a horse and dog trail. Mid-century it became a CAT trail. Vogler was using a CAT to travel it. National Park rangers helicoptered in to serve to a restraining order to stop his journey over what they said was sensitive summer tundra. Normally, NPS rangers didn’t go heavily armed in 1982, but they surrounded Vogler as if he were Public Enemy #1, outfitted with semi-automatic weapons and sidearms, then charged him with traveling through the park without a permit, not filing a plan of operations for mining and being off the trail and damaging the tundra.

Vogler had first used the Bielenberg trail in 1953 or 54, traveling from Circle Hot Springs to the “Valley of the Woodchopper”, using a D-8 Cat, a tracked vehicle called an Otter, and a 1000-gallon wheel bladder vehicle. Other miners in the area verified that the Bielenberg Trail had provided access to mining claims since the early 1930s. It was the only road out of Circle Hot Springs leading to the claims. The only other access is from the Taylor Highway near the Canadian border to the southeast.

Before Carter’s invoking the Antiquities Act in 1978, virtually all of the State of Alaska consisted of unreserved and open federal land. The rest, about 1%, belonged to individuals, including the miners in the Woodchopper area. None of the surrounding land had been removed from public access or subject to regulation and access was granted by the RS2477 legislation of 1866. Starting in 1966, a number of pieces of legislation had adversely affected the access rights of individuals, business, Native entities and several states, but no legislation expressly extinguished the RS2477 grant. In fact, subsequent legislation supports State’s rights. The access interference stemmed not from statutes, but from procedural regulations regarding federal land that conflict with RS2477 either in interpretation or authority. Federal agencies simply refused to recognize the rights given to the States through RS2477.

ANSCA had provided for existing land and rights-of-way, promising that “valid existing right recognized by this Act shall continue to have whatever right of access as is now provided for under existing law and this subsection shall not operate in any way to diminish or limit such right of access.”

What’s sort of ironic is that the State of Alaska and the Bureau of Land Management were in negotiations in the summer of 1982 to transfer the Bielenberg Trail to State of Alaska authority while another arm of the federal government was seeking to prevent access along the trail.

In court, the government introduced a series of witnesses who testified to the damage Vogler caused within the Preserve. Experts testified to observing uprooted trees, areas where all the vegetation had been scraped away, and a strip about six feet wide along the side of the trail where vegetation had been flattened by Vogler’s Caterpillar. One “expert” stated that some of the areas “could require up to 100 years to return to their original condition”.

The court rejected each of Vogler’s four affirmative defenses, the same ones he raised on appeal, and found that a permanent injunction was necessary to prevent Vogler from moving his equipment and mining his claims without first obtaining the necessary federal access permit and approval of mining plans. The court granted the government’s motion for a partial summary judgment. It then brought an additional claim under the Clean Water Act, which the court declined to resolve. In addition, the government brought a claim for monetary damages which the court scheduled for trial.

In 1988, Vogler lost his appeal in the United States vs. Joseph Vogler vs. Northern Alaska Environmental Center/Sierra Club, Alaska Chapter/Wilderness Society, in the US Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit in the case stemming from the Woodchopper incident. Chief Judge James M. Fitgerald granted permanent injunction prohibiting placer miners from operating off-road vehicles in national preserves without first obtaining an acceptable permit AND prohibiting placer mining operations without submitting and obtaining approval for a mining operations plan. Vogler appealed, and Circuit Judge Canby held:

  1. Federal government had authority to regulate access and mining within Alaska’s national parks (irregardless of the promises in the Alaska Statehood Compact, ANCSA and ANILCA).
  2. Regulations did not deprive Vogler of “adequate and feasible” access to his claims and were within power granted under property clause (essentially, he could take his equipment in during the winter, at extreme cold temperatures, which is very hard on equipment and operators).
  3. Federal government had authority to regulate travel on trails, even assuming it was established right-of-way (RS2477).
  4. Vogler’s claim alleging unconstitutional taking of property rights was not ripe for judicial resolution (in other words, it might be unconstitutional, but a judge does not have to review the case, so the point is moot).

In 1990, Vogler talked nominee John Lindauer into stepping aside as the candidate for governor under the Alaska Independence Party banner to allow Walter Hickel to run for the AIP. Many thought this was a calculated choice to bring the AIP to national attention. It may well have been since Hickel, while a great governor who challenged the federal government on several occasions, really was never supportive of secession.

In a 1991 interview that is part of the Oral History Program in the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Vogler is recorded as saying “The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government.”

By 1992, Vogler was upset that Hickel was not pressing for an independence vote hard enough to even cause a stir outside of Alaska. Vogler and his supports took out full page ads in Anchorage and Fairbanks newspapers comparing Alaska with Lithuania and the United States with the Soviet Union. He looked for a sponsor in order to speak before the United Nations General Assembly on Alaska independence and Iran agreed.

Yes, Iran!

Vogler was scheduled to fly to New York City in just a few weeks when friends found his cabin empty on Memorial Day 1993. His car was parked in the driveway, his dogs were unfed, and his wallet and heart medication were on the kitchen table.

The police were stymied, completely baffled by the disappearance and at several points tried to suggest Vogler had committed suicide. Then-AIP Chair Lynette Clark (a fellow miner) and other party leaders refused to believe it. The next summer, Manfred West, a convicted thief with a long documented history of mental illness confessed to having murdered Vogler in what he described as an illegal plastic explosive sale gone bad.

Aside from the implausibility that Vogler was buying plastic explosives from a mentally ill man, I was neighbors with Manfred’s brother, who still does not believe his brother actually killed Vogler. He points out that his brother was not stable enough to have kept a secret like that for so long. It’s been his belief from the beginning that Fred was susceptible to suggestion and might be wholly convinced that he killed Vogler, but that the story just didn’t add up. That’s what many casual observers felt as well. Trooper investigators found Vogler’s remains in a gravel pit east of Fairbanks in October 1994 following an anonymous tip. Supposedly forensic analysis linked Fred West to the body and he is serving an 80-year sentence.

AIP leaders believe and many Alaskans suspect more was involved. Lynette Clark notes that Vogler was about to appear before the UN to address Alaska independence.

“The United States government would have been deeply embarrassed. And we can’t have that, can we?” She and others have maintained that Vogler was executed by some agency of the federal government.

Personally, I don’t know, but I’ve seen enough strange things with the federal government’s dealings with Alaska, that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to the story.

5 responses to “Joe Vogler and RS 2477

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  1. Yes, there is more. I was supposed to housesit for him that evening, but was forced off the road before I got to the driveway. I was late getting home, so I called and no answer. His dogs had been drugged. Investigators claimed he probably did that himself for a vet visit. The vet always came to his house, not the other way around and he never drugged his dogs.
    Joe was a tall fairly heavy set man, yet Manfred was supposed to have been able to wrap him in blue tarp and duct tape it completely, load him in the truck all by himself. Manfred is not a large man. I don’t now if anyone reading this has tried to pick up a dead body or even a fainted person, it is not an easy thing to do.
    Dee and I were probably closer to Joe at that time than anyone, yet neither of us were ever questioned. I was followed and embarassed the man by offering him a cold soda, since it was a hot day and a, clean shaven man, wearing a dark suit and tie, showing up everywhere I was, does tend to stick out. I don’t frequent places men in suits go, especially the well polished shoes.
    By the way, all the boxes of files disappeared that night, too.

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    • I’ve heard a lot of these “rumors” before, but never really met someone involved. Thanks for sharing.

      I remember Joe from when I was a kid. My mom used to wait tables at cafes around town and Joe was one of the men there sometimes. I remember him arguing statehood with my dad, who was involved with some of that, but claimed to have voted against it in 1959 because he couldn’t get a copy of the Statehood Compact before the election. My mom was a great admirer of Joe because she had always been against statehood.

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      • I was the Secretary of the AIP until I successfully ran for defeat by nominating Lynette Clark for my position. I worked with Joe for many years and accompanied his wife to Greece for alternative cancer treatments. I also cooked the spaghetti dinner fundraiser held for legal fees against the Feds on the RS2477 mess. They told me to plan on maybe 200 people but be lucky if a hundred showed up. I served 636 people that night and I hope to never cook for that many people again, ever.

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      • That’s an experience! I think I attended that fundraiser. If you write anything on these issues, I’ll reblog it. First hand knowledge is critical to getting the message out that federal colonialism in Alaska affects real people in very real and very negative ways.

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      • I didn’t mind being Secretary until the Party got popular. Before that, somebody had to do it.

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