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State navigable waters lawsuit pushes back on federal overreach

Oct 6, 2021

The State of Alaska is suing to force the federal government to recognize state ownership of submerged lands beneath four Interior rivers, continuing Governor Mike Dunleavy’s defense of state sovereignty against federal overreach.

The action filed in federal District Court today seeks to extinguish any federal ownership claim to lands underlying sections of the South Fork of the Koyukuk River, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Bettles River and Dietrich River.

“The federal government continues to deny the obvious in a bald attempt to block the State of Alaska from exerting ownership of its submerged lands, and while that is disappointing, it is no longer surprising,” said Governor Dunleavy. “This lawsuit represents the next step in my continuing Unlocking Alaska Initiative to assert our land ownership rights against federal obstruction.”

The state’s claim to the submerged lands beneath these rivers is grounded in the U.S. Constitution, Equal Footing Doctrine, Federal Submerged Lands Act, and Federal Quiet Title Act, which recognize state control of waters within their borders that did support or could have supported commercial travel at statehood.

The state departments of Natural Resources and Law’s support of the Unlocking Alaska Initiative recently resulted in an important victory when the Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled the state, not the federal government, owned 7,500 acres of submerged lands underlying the Kuskokwim River near McGrath. The state’s case rested largely on the same principles asserted in today’s lawsuit, and on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“We have repeatedly had to turn to the courts to force the United States to recognize Alaska’s ownership of submerged lands,” said Attorney General Treg Taylor. “We’ve litigated the Stikine River, the Kandik and Nation rivers, the Gulkana River, and the Knik River, and we are currently litigating rivers in the Fortymile basin. These lands have been Alaska’s since 1959, and it’s high time the U.S. government acknowledged that fact.”

“The promise of statehood was that Alaska would control its lands,” said Corri Feige, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. “Despite our repeated efforts, resolving even clear-cut cases of state ownership has dragged on for decades. This lawsuit is a concrete step in Alaska asserting its rights to submerged lands that have been ours since statehood.”

In other recent statehood defense actions, the governor sued in federal district court to force the Interior Department to release its decades-long hold on nearly 28 million acres of federal land rom consideration for statehood land selections, Alaska Native allotments, or other beneficial uses. He has also sought additional funding to bolster the state’s legal resources to defend state land claims against federal overreach, delay, and obstruction.