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Feds sue Alaska for managing its own river

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Feds sue Alaska for managing its own river

Sep 18, 2023 | 7:53 pm ET
By Doug Vincent-Lang Treg Taylor
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Feds sue Alaska for managing its own river
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This view is of the Kuskokwim River and forests surrounding the river. (Photo by Jorge Moro/Getty Images)

When someone else tries to take over your property, it’s up to you to legally defend your ownership rights. Imagine your neighbor comes over and starts determining who can park on your property, or worse, comes onto your property and bars a friend of yours from entering your house. That’s where we find ourselves today in our legal response to the federal government’s repeated attempts to seize control of the Kuskokwim River and take charge of the fish within. Both belong to the State of Alaska and its people, and we took an oath of office to protect them for the benefit of all Alaskans.

Alaska, like all states, was granted ownership of its navigable waters at statehood. The Kuskokwim River was deemed “navigable waters,” making the riverbed the property of the State of Alaska from mean high water marks on both sides of the river. This fact is undisputed. In 1980, Congress passed a law that made the federal government “neighbors” to the riverbed by giving them land next to the river, but ownership of the Kuskokwim did not change. Despite this, the federal government is attempting to seize control of the fisheries in the Kuskokwim—like that pesky neighbor who is dictating who can come on your property.

The mismanagement of our fisheries resources from outside entities was one of the primary drivers behind statehood. In fact, federal management during Alaska’s territorial days had decimated the populations. As a result, the right to manage fisheries was also granted as part of our statehood compact. It’s written in plain language in our Alaska Constitution. Article 8, Title 3, “Where occurring in their natural state, the fish, wildlife and waters are reserved to the people for common use.”

Then in a bizarre twist in 2022, the Biden Administration’s Department of Justice sued the State of Alaska for managing its own river in an aggressive push to wrest management control of the Kuskokwim from Alaska.  The federal move seeks to make it a crime for most Alaskans to fish on the Kuskokwim, including Alaska Natives from the Kuskokwim region, who have relocated to urban areas of the state for economic opportunities. They will no longer be able to return to the region to help their families in their cultural subsistence needs. Federal management also comes at a cost to Alaska families who live upstream of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge – the federal opening prevented sufficient fish from reaching these families, despite the State’s attempts to close the fishery on certain days to allow enough fish to get upstream. In short, federal management picks a small group of winners in a small geographic area at the expense of all others and at the risk of future returns.  

The law is squarely on the side of Alaska. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed in Sturgeon v. Frost that “navigable waters” are State owned and managed and they are exempt under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA.

The United States has challenged the State of Alaska on an issue that is at the heart of why Alaska became a state—management of its fisheries. We cannot back down. It is our constitutional duty to defend the rights of all subsistence users and ensure the fisheries are managed for the long-term benefit of all Alaskans.

Note: The wording of a reference to Alaska Natives has been updated at the request of the authors.