AG: Submerged lands critical to sovereignty

Alaska attorney general presents opening arguments in case before U.S. Supreme Court

Posted: Friday, February 07, 2003

The dispute between the state and the federal government over submerged lands in Southeast marine waters is key to Alaska's sovereignty, the state is arguing in a case that will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes gave the opening arguments in the case Monday in Washington, D.C., before a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The issues in this case go to the heart of Alaska's Statehood Compact, to the heart of a plan for Alaska statehood based on a grant of lands and interests in resources, and to the heart of our constitutional federal system," Renkes told Special Master Gregory E. Maggs, who was appointed to hear arguments and make recommendations on judgments to the high court.

Partly spurred by a congressional vote to phase out commercial fishing in Glacier Bay, the state in 1999 asked the court to decide ownership of Southeast's marine submerged lands.

Part of the dispute lies in the interpretation of the federal Submerged Lands Act, which "grants coastal states title to offshore lands within their historic boundaries, generally up to three miles from the coastline."

The federal government claims that the state boundary is drawn three miles from the coast and around each island in the Alexander Archipelago. That interpretation would leave some pockets of submerged land between islands in federal hands.

But Renkes argued the submerged lands in the archipelago have been treated as part of Alaska historically.

"It is no slight to the rest of the state to recognize that, in many respects, the Alexander Archipelago and Southeast Alaska form the historic, cultural and political heart of the state," he said.

Even if the state wins the case, however, Congress could control some activities in state waters.

Renkes also argued that to withdraw even more land into federal authority would undermine Alaska's statehood. Renkes noted the area at issue is nearly 600 miles long and 100 miles wide, and said it was promised to Alaska when it became a state.

"For the federal government to retain so much of the lands otherwise intended to be conveyed raises serious constitutional concerns," he said.

Renkes offered evidence to support the state's claim.

He noted that at the 1903 Alaska Boundary Tribunal, the federal government defined the boundary of Alaska in Southeast as the outside edge of the Alexander Archipelago.

Renkes argued that the U.S. government specifically cited the straits leading into the archipelago as an example of "inland waters" in a Supreme Court brief. The state is entitled to inland waters, but there is a disagreement over whether the straits can be defined as inland waters.

Renkes could not be reached for further comment. Attorneys for the federal government declined to comment.

Masha Herbst can be reached at

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