Gov. Mike Dunleavy says Alaskans can use motorized boats on Mendenhall Lake
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - As part of an effort to assert state ownership of submerged lands, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has sent a cease and desist letter to the U.S. Forest Service, stating that motorized boats are currently allowed on Mendenhall Lake and River.
The letter is part of a push by the Dunleavy administration to assert state control of lands that sit beneath 800,000 acres of navigable rivers and 30 million acres of navigable lakes across Alaska. The governor announced the “Unlocking Alaska Initiative” last year.
“As a matter of principle, we will not concede one inch to the federal government that belongs to the state of Alaska,” Dunleavy said on Tuesday.
Commissioner Corri Feige of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources sent the letter to a federal representative on Monday, writing that commercial boat operators should contact the state for permits to work on Mendenhall Lake and River instead of federal agencies.
She also asserted that Alaskans are currently allowed to use motorized boats on the lake and river for non-commercial purposes despite the U.S. Forest Service prohibiting that. Dunleavy says because it’s a state lake and river, that Alaskans should contact the state’s Department of Natural Resources if they are “hassled” or fined by federal officials.
“We’re hoping it doesn’t happen, but we’re prepared to intervene when our Alaskan citizens are wronged by certain federal agencies or agents,” Dunleavy said.
Erica Keene, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said, “The agency works closely with its State of Alaska partners on many projects and will continue to do so on this topic as well.”
“The Forest Service is aware of today’s news conference and will review documents shared related to submerged lands in the Tongass National Forest,” she said by email.
John Sturgeon, who mounted a successful 12-year legal challenge to use his hovercraft to hunt moose in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, stood alongside the governor during Tuesday’s press conference. He said “absolutely nothing” had changed in terms of the federal government recognizing state ownership of submerged lands since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor three years ago.
Feige said the efforts to work with the federal government on title issues is “bearing no fruit.” Neither is getting an inventory of how much federal infrastructure has been built on state lakes and rivers, she added.
The governor currently has legislation before the Alaska House of Representatives and the Senate, asserting state control of lands underneath over 1,800 Alaska waterways. A vote is planned for Wednesday to advance the bill from the Senate Resources Committee to the Senate floor, but the House version hasn’t been heard since being introduced in March.
The Dunleavy administration has argued that the bill would help take the Sturgeon decision statewide, reflecting that this land was never relinquished at statehood. And that it makes “crystal clear” which lands the state of Alaska is claiming.
Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, argued that the bill is meaningless. Currently, the state asserts ownership of land beneath a navigable river or lake and the federal government either accepts that or the dispute could end up in court.
“The process before and after the bill is exactly the same,” Kiehl said. “Nothing actually changes.”
Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, was similarly skeptical of the Dunleavy administration’s efforts. He said they seemed like a campaign issue and that the administration is “spoiling for a fight” in court.
A lawsuit was also filed in federal court on Tuesday against the U.S. Interior Department, asserting state control over land in Lake Clark National Park. Several other similar legal challenges have been filed by the Dunleavy administration.
Tyler Cherry, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, said by email that he had nothing to say about Tuesday’s lawsuit or the broader push for state sovereignty over submerged lands.
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