For more than 62 years, the federal government has diverted, dawdled and delayed when it came to acknowledging Alaska’s rights to manage its navigable rivers and lakes, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy now has put President Joe Biden on notice those days have passed.
In a letter to the president, Dunleavy was clear.
“Alaska was promised the right to a sovereign government with the authority to manage its lands, waters, and resources,” he wrote. "One of these specific rights is the right to receive title from the federal government to all submerged lands beneath navigable waters. Unfortunately, the federal government has not lived up to its promises.”
Dunleavy says Alaska now will assume management of some 800,000 miles of its navigable rivers and 30 million acres of navigable lakes and related submerged lands it was granted by the Alaska Statehood Act in 1959. Federal agencies so far only have handed Alaska clear title to 16 percent of state-owned lakes and 9 percent of submerged lands beneath state-owned rivers.
Dunleavy’s Unlocking Alaska Initiative is a bold move and long overdue after the state’s decades-long and futile efforts to forge an agreement with the federal government about who will regulate navigable waterways and submerged lands. The federal government’s reluctance to give up its regulatory authority has been felt across Alaska, where it affects access to everything from fishing to berry picking, camping and hunting.
The governor’s move notably came on the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Sturgeon v. Frost. The high court ruled unanimously in that case that John Sturgeon — whose legal fees to preserve his rights added up to more than $1 million — had the right to use his hovercraft on the Nation River to reach state hunting grounds, despite the river being in the Yukon-Charley National Preserve. The ruling made clear Alaskans have the right to use navigable waters in other Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act-created conservation systems, too.
The high court, in two separate cases filed by Sturgeon, has ruled federal regulations on conservation units in Alaska do not override state ownership, but the federal government has not listened.
In addition to the Alaska Statehood Act’s grant of 105 million upland acres and ownership of all “submerged lands” underneath rivers and lakes, Dunleavy says ANILCA in 1980 specifically exempted from federal regulation state and private land — including submerged lands — inside federal conservation units created by the act.
Federal agencies manage more than 200 million acres in Alaska, along with hundreds of thousands of acres of submerged lands within the boundaries of federal conservation units as if they are part of those units, creating myriad access and management conflicts. Alaskans illegally have been ticketed or fined for lawfully using state waters or other state submerged lands although allowed by Alaska law.
Dunleavy has told the Department of Interior and secretary of Agriculture to end management oversight of such lands within federal conservation units.
There is little doubt Alaska’s efforts to enforce the law and provisions of the Alaska Statehood Act will be met with more resistance by foot-dragging federal agencies as they delay, resist and obstruct efforts to curtail their regulating as they see fit — Supreme Court or no Supreme Court.
Alaskans should anticipate lawsuits and legal fireworks along the state’s long, torturous path to secure rights the state was promised those long years ago. Such legal battles are expensive and time-consuming.
But if not now, when? It has been a long 62 years.