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State Claims Jurisdiction over Navigable Waters


Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday announced he is asking the Department of Natural Resources to claim state control of submerged lands under navigable lakes and rivers in Alaska, -- even those that go through federal public lands like national parks.

“The desire is to work collaboratively with the federal government, however, when it comes to questions as to who has the right, Alaskans, to be on their waters, rivers, streams, lakes and other bodies that are going to be identified on our DNR website, it’s going to be made clear that Alaska is in fact a sovereign.“

Dunleavy said conversations with federal agencies will continue. He sent a letter to President Biden on Friday announcing his stance. The Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service manage more than 200 million acres in Alaska, and have a mission to protect rivers and streams on federal land.

But Dunleavy’s position is that the state has control over the riverbeds under the water, and the state gets to define if a waterway is boat-able, even critical marshlands.

The announcement has implications for commercial permits and wilderness access on 800,000 miles of Alaska waterways, but Dunleavy’s message is equally about symbolism and principle. Dunleavy repeatedly invoked the U.S Supreme Court’s Sturgeon decision.

John Sturgeon is a moose hunter who was ticketed for using a hovercraft in Yukon-Charley National Preserve. He became an emblem of Alaska-style state’s rights in 2019 when the U.S. Supreme Court said the Park Service was wrong to ticket Sturgeon because it did not have jurisdiction on the water.

It its decision, the court referred to ANILCA – the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act from 1980. Sturgeon made a statement at Dunleavy’s press conference.

“The main issue in the battle was actually over state sovereignty of all it’s navigable waters. Over and over again, the Supreme Court said ANILCA was a grand compromise between protecting the environment and developing Alaska‘s economy and the continuation of Alaska‘s lifestyle. It wasn’t just about preserving our natural areas. This of course, applies to all navigable waters even if they flow through areas where the uplands are owned by the federal government.”

The Department of Natural Resources has updated maps that identify navigable rivers under the state’s definition. DNR Commissioner Corri Feige encouraged river travelers to check the DNR website to see if they need a state permit.

“Within the state of Alaska, we have over 800,000 miles of navigable rivers, and over 30,000,000 acres of navigable lakes. And in a state like Alaska where we have few roads, and very little infrastructure, these waters are literally the arteries that connect our communities they are the transportation corridors that we use to access our resources, like the most that we hunt and they are the conduits for business development.“

Jim Adams, Alaska Director of the National Parks Conservation Association, says the Park Service hasn’t issued a citation on rivers or lakes in two years. He says Dunleavy is “recycling the tired Alaska ‘state versus feds’ myth that was old twenty years ago.” 

A spokesperson for the Interior Department had no immediate comment Friday afternoon.