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Governor Moves to Exert Control Over Alaska Lands and Waters

Mar 26, 2021

March 26, 2021 (Anchorage, AK) – Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy today sent a letter to President Joe Biden asserting state management of the more than 800,000 miles of navigable rivers and 30 million acres of navigable lakes in Alaska, expressing intent for the State to exercise its authority to manage them and the related submerged lands under state law.

After 62 years of federal delay and obstruction, the State of Alaska is asserting its management rights over the vast network of navigable waters and submerged lands it received at statehood and will move aggressively to promote their use and enjoyment to serve the interests of the Alaska people.

“For too long, we have waited for federal land managers to fulfil their duty and acknowledge that the Alaska people, and not their bureaucracies, are the true owners of Alaska’s navigable waters and submerged lands,” said Governor Dunleavy. “Despite clear legal evidence and common sense, the federal government has failed to loosen its chokehold on these areas. With today’s action, we are asserting our rights and unlocking Alaska.”

Additionally, Governor Dunleavy directed Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Corri Feige to send letters to the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture telling them to cease management oversight of such lands within federal conservation units and refer all users to state authorities.

“We at DNR have worked with our federal counterparts for many years to secure quiet title to Alaska’s submerged lands beneath navigable waters,” said Commissioner Corri Feige. “Unfortunately, our good faith efforts have been met with delay, denial, and resistance that have cost the state time and money, and further deprived many Alaskans of the opportunity to enjoy their statehood birthright. The administration’s initiative reflects the truth that these resources are Alaska’s, to be enjoyed by Alaska without federal interference.”

The Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service manage more than 200 million acres in Alaska. In the past, they have managed hundreds of thousands of acres of submerged lands within the boundaries of federal conservation system units (CSUs) as if they are part of these units, creating access and management conflicts for Alaskans trying to use these waters and navigate across the state.

To date, the federal government has acknowledged Alaska’s clear title to only 16 percent of state-owned lakes, and to submerged lands under only 9 percent of state-owned rivers. By retaining management of the rest, federal authorities block Alaskans from legitimate recreational and commercial use of these resources generally allowed under state law. Federal agents have exceeded their authority by wrongfully ticketing or fining Alaskans lawfully using state waters or using gravel bars or other state submerged lands in accordance with state law.

“In a frontier state like ours, control of the rivers and streams that serve as our commercial highways is essential to prosperity,” said Governor Dunleavy. “Alaskans have been suffering under the federal yoke of neglect and administrative gridlock for decades. While federal agencies delay resolution, they continue to restrict use. These illegal federal restrictions on the use of state lands and waters must end.”

The governor’s action comes on the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, in which it ruled unanimously that John Sturgeon had the right to cross navigable waters to access state hunting grounds, even if the waters passed through the Yukon-Charley National Preserve. The ruling made clear that Alaskans have the right to use navigable waters in other ANILCA-created conservation system units (CSUs) as well.

The governor’s action is grounded on three important legal principles:

  • The 1959 Alaska Statehood Act granted the State 104 million upland acres, and the U.S. Constitution provides that the new state immediately received ownership of all “submerged lands” underneath rivers and lakes that then were, or could have been, navigable for commercial purposes – that can accommodate a boat with a 1,000-pound load.
  • The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that closed off more than 150 million acres of federal land inside new CSUs exempted state and private land – including submerged lands – inside those units from most federal regulation.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in two cases in which Sturgeon defended his right to cross navigable waters, that federal regulations on CSUs do not override state ownership. The justices’ unanimous decisions rejected claims that laws affecting Lower 48 federal land automatically apply in Alaska and unequivocally confirmed that Alaska is different.

Access to submerged lands and navigable waters is not only helpful but critical to Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) corporations and their shareholders. Ways of life on private inholdings including building, hunting, fishing, camping, and gathering berries are heavily regulated by the federal government. Necessary modes of transportation have continually been limited to locations designated by the federal government.

The governor has directed DNR to expand its online mapping resources to display navigable rivers and lakes in Alaska, accelerate its efforts to resolve a backlog of federal navigability determinations, and assert legal claims for full rights to access and use state lands and waters.

The governor has also made it clear he will use the full force of the State including its resources to protect Alaskans from illegal actions by overzealous federal agents and representatives.

“Alaska’s destiny lies in full ownership of and access to our natural resources,” continued Governor Dunleavy. “These actions are a first step in “Unlocking Alaska” – an initiative that I will continue to advance in the coming months. My administration will not rest until Alaska has achieved the foundational promises of statehood, and every Alaskan is granted unfettered access to our lands and waters.

Additional information on Governor Dunleavy’s Unlocking Alaska Initiative can be found here.

Governor Dunleavy’s letter to President Biden can be found here.