Dunleavy gets after feds to recognize Alaska’s ownership of submerged lands

iceberg in a lake
Icebergs on Mendenhall Lake. (Matt Miller/KTOO)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is taking the federal government to court to assert the state’s ownership of land under navigable waters, in national parks, refuges and forests.

“As a matter of principle, we will not concede one inch to the federal government that belongs to the state of Alaska,” he said at a news conference Tuesday.

Not only is the state suing, it is also issuing notices of trespass and cease-and-desist letters — all aimed at getting the feds to recognize the state’s land ownership on waterways that flow through federal lands, as promised in the Statehood Act. The governor also has a bill pending in the Legislature to lay claim to the land under hundreds of lakes and rivers.

“We’re resetting this relationship and will pursue the Unlocking Alaska initiative relentlessly, with every available tool for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans,” Dunleavy said.

One of the state’s cease-and-desist letters concerns boating on Mendenhall Lake near Juneau. The state says the Forest Service must stop enforcing its ban on motorized boating.

Katie Strong, senior attorney at the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, said she doesn’t think the state will prevail in court.

“Navigability is an issue of federal law and the federal government needs to determine what is navigable for title purposes,” she said. “And whether the state passes legislation or sends letters, until we have federal determinations for each waterbody — don’t see any legal effect. So it seems like politics to me.”

John Sturgeon also spoke at the governor’s news conference. He won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling over his right to operate a hovercraft on the Nation River, inside the borders of land managed by the National Park Service. The Park Service doesn’t allow hovercraft. But the Sturgeon case establishes that the state of Alaska calls the shots on navigable waters like the Nation River.

While the state cites the Sturgeon case in its cease-and-desist letter over Mendenhall Lake, Strong said she doesn’t think it applies. The Sturgeon case, and the law it’s built on, is about navigable waters in “conservation system units,” like national parks, refuges, designated wilderness areas and monuments. Mendenhall Lake is in the Tongass National Forest, which she said doesn’t meet the definition.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the Park Service’s rules on motorized boats.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.