In new lawsuit, Alaska attempts to claim portions of its most-visited tourist attraction

Mendenhall Lake
Mendenhall Lake in Juneau is seen on Nov. 6, 2021. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The State of Alaska sued the federal government one week before Election Day, seeking ownership of part of Alaska’s most-visited tourist destination.

Filed Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Anchorage, the case asks a federal judge to award ownership of the land beneath Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River to the state. Located in Juneau’s residential Mendenhall Valley, the lake rests at the base of the Mendenhall Glacier, within the Tongass National Forest, and is seen by more than 700,000 tourists annually, more than Denali National Park and Preserve.

The lake is currently under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, and a successful lawsuit could bring significant changes. For example, motorboats and (in winter) snowmachines are barred from the lake. 

The state has no ban in place, and earlier this year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy suggested the state would legally defend someone who uses a motorized vehicle in the area.

The Forest Service is also planning a major expansion of visitor facilities at the site. It was not immediately clear whether that expansion will be postponed by the lawsuit.

Erica Keene, a spokesperson for the Forest Service’s Alaska region, said the agency cannot comment on topics under litigation and that the federal government will respond to the lawsuit in court.

State officials, who announced the lawsuit by email, said it is part of a broader campaign by Dunleavy, whose administration filed a similar lawsuit over waterways in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve earlier this year. Another lawsuit was filed in October 2021. 

The broader campaign, announced as “Unlocking Alaska” in 2021, is a multimillion-dollar effort to claim state ownership of areas currently controlled by the federal government. 

Critics, including some of Dunleavy’s opponents in this year’s election, have said the campaign amounts to state-paid grandstanding ahead of this year’s vote.

Prior governors have directed similar cases, including one involving the Chena River, which runs through downtown Fairbanks. The state won that case.

Tuesday’s lawsuit is the first in the Unlocking Alaska campaign to involve a river running through a major city.

Environmental groups have expressed concern about the initiative; administration officials said in 2021 that the state plans to seek ownership of river bottoms along the route of the proposed Ambler Road and other development projects in an effort to speed their progress. 

Officials at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council did not have an immediate comment on this week’s lawsuit.

A unanimous 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision acknowledged Alaska’s right to manage navigable waterways, but the federal government and state government continue to disagree on the definition of navigability. 

Tuesday’s lawsuit, and the cases that have preceded it, hinge on that definition.

If a river or lake was navigable at the time of statehood in 1959, ownership of the land beneath it should have been transferred to state control, unless it had already been transferred to another owner. 

In Tuesday’s lawsuit, the state claims both the Mendenhall River and lake have not been improved to allow better transportation since statehood, and that since they are navigable today — capable of “use by wooden and skin boats, log and inflatable rafts, power and jet boats, and canoes providing transportation for individuals and supplies, for subsistence and recreational guided and non-guided hunting and fishing activities,” they should be considered navigable.

The suit also claims that even though the adjoining glacier has retreated, exposing more of the lake since statehood, the court should award the entire lake, including portions that remain below the glacier. The glacier is expected to melt past the lake’s edge sometime before 2050.

The federal government has yet to reply to the lawsuit, but in the October 2021 case, which deals with portions of the Koyukuk River and two tributaries, it sought to dismiss the case, in part on the grounds that the rivers were not navigable at statehood. 

Judge Sharon Gleason rejected most of the federal government’s dismissal request on Aug. 16, except for small portions of rivers that flow through Native allotments. 

That case, along with the case dealing with Lake Clark and Tuesday’s newly filed case, remains unresolved.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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