This story has been updated to include a response from the U.S. Forest Service.
In a sweeping announcement Tuesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state was filing lawsuits against the federal government for failing to convey submerged lands to the state, and for ignoring repeated requests from the state to inventory structures on state lands.
The issue stems from a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision Sturgeon v. Frost where justices decided unanimously Alaska’s lands submerged beneath navigable waterways were controlled by the state. Dunleavy announced his Unlocking Alaska initiative, a concerted effort by the administration to bring legal action against the federal government for what the state sees as failure to comply with the Supreme Court decision.
“We’re going to hold your feet to the fire,” Dunleavy said at an Anchorage news conference. “As a matter of principle, we will not concede one inch to the federal government.”
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige said at the conference the state was issuing trespassing orders to federal agencies with structures such as docks on state lands without the proper state permits. The state also sent cease and desist orders to federal agencies with planned projects, such as the planned expansion at the Mendenhall Visitor Center. Feige said because Mendenhall Lake is a navigable waterway, it falls under the jurisdiction of the state and not the U.S. Forest Service and as such, state laws permitted motorized vehicles on the lake.
“Alaskans have the right to use motorized vehicles on Mendenhall Lake,” Feige said.
If Alaskans were fined by federal agents, Dunleavy said the state had set up a page on the DNR website where the citations can be submitted and the state will decide if it wants to take legal action to defend the citizen.
Deputy Attorney General Cori Mills said at the conference the state had won every case related to waterways it had filed.
“I’ve heard a lot about, well (doesn’t the state) lose a lot of lawsuits,” Mills said. “That’s not true. The state has had a lot of success with navigable water litigation. We have won every single case we have brought in this area.”
In an email, Forest Service spokesperson Erica Keene said the agency was aware of Tuesday’s news conference and will review documents related to submerged lands in the Tongass National Forest. The agency works closely will state partners, Keene said, and will do so on this topic as well.
“We have law behind us,” Dunleavy said. “There are certain federal agencies and certain federal agents who say they’re going to ignore the law.”
Dunleavy said his administration has sent repeated requests to the Forest Service to begin the process of identifying and conveying navigable waters and to provide an inventory of federal structures on state lands. The state has identified 800,000 miles of navigable rivers in Alaska and 30 million acres of navigable lakes.
The administration also sent a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Debb Haaland, who recently met with Dunleavy on her visit to the state.
“We remain willing to work with you constructively to find solutions that are in the best interests of Alaskans, but now is the time for action, not more non-commmittal promises and hollow assurances,” the letter said. “We are moving forward boldly; we hope that you will work with us to recognize what has been state property for 63 years: Alaska’s submerged lands.”
Control of lands as well as permitting processes are topics frequently raised by the Dunleavy administration.
When the Alaska House of Representatives passed the state’s operating budget last month, it included $4.9 million for the Department of Environmental Conservation to hire an additional 28 workers to take over a federal permitting process related to the Clean Water Act, according to the Associated Press. But that money was removed from the draft budget bill by the Senate Finance Committee, AP reported, after some lawmakers expressed skepticism about the cost to the state.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.