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23rd Alaska State Legislature
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Alaska State Senator Ralph Seekins Information

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Submerged Land Title Disputes
Sponsor Statement for SJR 27
Alaska State Legislature
Alaska State Legislature
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Last Updated:
February 17, 2004
Brian E. Hove
465-2327 (Jan-May)
456-8161 (June-Dec)
















"The bottom line? That which should be indisputable - that Alaska holds title to its submerged lands - has, in fact, been effectively disputed as a function of the federal government's foot dragging."
- Sen. Seekins

 

"Relating to the resolution of submerged land title disputes."

Alaska holds over 20,000 rivers and more than 1,000,000 lakes considered to be potentially navigable waterways. This amounts to nearly 60,000,000 acres of submerged lands. Title to all submerged land was to be transferred to Alaska from the federal government at statehood. It's important to note that up until statehood this land was held in trust for the future state by the federal government. Now, more than 45 years after Alaska became a sovereign state, the federal government has yet to transfer title to these promised lands.

SJR 27 does three things:

  1. It encourages the Secretary of the Interior and the Alaska congressional delegation to support and endorse the continuation of the process for recording federal disclaimers of interest for quieting title to submerged lands;
  2. It requests the Alaska congressional delegation to introduce legislation in the Congress to provide for federal participation in the proposed state and federal Navigable Waters Commission for Alaska; and
  3. It requests the introduction of legislation in the Congress to amend the Quiet Title Act to ensure federal cooperation in resolving submerged land title disputes.

The dilemma is clearly illustrated in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case Alaska v. USA (decision filed on January 28, 2000). Circuit Judge Andrew Kleinfeld authored the opinion of the court excerpted as follows:

It is undisputed that when the Union [United States of America] was created, each of the thirteen original states retained title to the lands covered by navigable waters, and that under the "equal footing doctrine" each new state succeeds upon statehood to the federal interest in these lands. The Submerged Lands Act gave Alaska title to the beds of navigable rivers on January 3, 1959.

Under [the Quiet Title Act] . . . the federal government takes the position that its sovereign immunity shields it from the state government's claim [to clear title to submerged lands] until the federal government itself makes a claim. Because Alaska is very large, much of it is wilderness, and there are innumerable waters, the federal government has not had time yet (45 years) to determine what claims it wishes to make. Therefore, the state government must wait until the federal government makes a claim, if it ever does, before settling whether it has title.

In a nutshell, the federal government's preferred method for reconciling these disputes appears to be to wait the state out. When (if ever) the government decides to make a claim against state ownership, only then does Alaska have an opportunity to protect its ownership interest. This is accomplished by filing a quiet title suit against the federal government - just as it did in the case cited above relating to the Nation, Kandik and Black Rivers.

The bottom line? That which should be indisputable - that Alaska holds title to its submerged lands - has, in fact, been effectively disputed as a function of the federal government's foot dragging. Without doubt, the existing processes of resolving submerged lands title disputes are inadequate and exceptionally slow. SJR 27 seeks resolution to this extraordinarily unfair dilemma.

# # #

 
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