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A land-management gambit that could benefit Alaska

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 3
  • Published April 3

John Sturgeon with his hovercraft on the Nation River. (Photo provided by John Sturgeon)

In late March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy threw down a rhetorical gauntlet, announcing that after more than 60 years of statehood, Alaska is exercising its right to manage all navigable waterways in the state — including those that flow through federal land. It’s a gambit that’s backed by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and although its impact for ordinary Alaskans is mostly symbolic, it may wake federal authorities up to unfulfilled promises made to the state decades ago.

The assertion that Alaska can manage all navigable waterways in the state, as well as the lands underneath them, has its roots in recent Supreme Court case law — in particular, the John Sturgeon case. The court’s unanimous 2019 ruling established that the state has those management rights even for rivers that pass through federal lands. Fortunately, that ruling threaded a needle in preserving another landmark decision important to Alaska — the Katie John decision, which found that land management rights aside, the National Parks Service has the right to regulate subsistence fishing. Based on that decision, authorities have prioritized the use of fish by those who live along the rivers and rely on the fish in them to survive. Sturgeon and the Alaska Federation of Natives found common cause in seeking a management solution that kept subsistence rights intact — and, fortunately, the Supreme Court found those goals compatible under the Alaska National Interest Land Claims Act.

Now Gov. Dunleavy has notified the federal government that the state intends to exercise its management rights on all of the state’s navigable waterways, which total roughly 800,000 miles. The move is partly political, a shot across the bow of a federal administration that has already acted with impunity in its management of federal lands — in ways that stand to harm Alaska’s oil-reliant economy. It’s also a strong and symbolic claim of the state’s rights, and a statement of purpose that Alaska will no longer cede its rightful authority to a federal government that may not share the state’s values. Both of these goals are important, especially given that more than 60% of Alaska’s lands are federally owned.

For regular Alaskans hunting, fishing, floating and recreating on waterways throughout the state, the governor’s declaration isn’t likely to have much practical impact — unless you’re a commercial guide, little is prone to change about the way you use rivers. In the unlikely event that you’re harassed by federal authorities as Mr. Sturgeon was, however, the state is likely to offer you some legal assistance in defending your rights.

So if state management of Alaska’s waterways won’t change much, why is it important? For one thing, it may blunt any federal policies that could have restricted Alaskans’ access to those waters — there’s no sign that such policies were imminent, but under state management, they shouldn’t be any kind of a threat. And perhaps more importantly, Gov. Dunleavy’s action is likely to shake some long-standing trees in Washington, D.C., making federal authorities realize Alaska is serious about taking care of its own affairs. If we’re lucky, they might recognize it’s better to be our partners in that effort rather than our adversaries — although the history of federal-state relations in Alaska has always been fraught, there’s plenty of time to chart a mutually beneficial course.

A key piece of that course would be for the federal government to finally hand over the 360,000 acres promised to the University of Alaska as a land grant at statehood. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has already authored a bill that would convey that land to the university; its passage would go far in assuring Alaska that the federal government is looking to be a good-faith partner in finally living up to the promises of statehood. More land for the university would enable it to leverage that asset and help pay its own way; the university’s ability to better pay for itself would mean less state funds would be required for its operations; and finally, those freed-up state funds would shrink the state’s fiscal gap, lessening the impact of restrictive federal resource development policies.

The governor has taken a bold, important and positive step in asserting Alaska’s control over the state’s navigable waterways. It’s high time Alaska stood up for its right to manage our own lands, free from oppressive federal oversight.

Correction: The original version of this editorial as it appeared online contained a pair of errors relating to the nature of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Sturgeon case and the governing law under which it was decided.