An appeal decision on an ANWR border dispute - expected before the end of 2019 - has not yet been released, pushing the impasse between the U.S. Department of the Interior and the state of Alaska into yet another calendar year.
At issue is the ownership of 19,322 acres between the Canning and Staines rivers, which flow northward along the western side of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into the Arctic Ocean.
Interior press secretary Molly Block said July 8 that the matter was “under litigation (with Interior’s Board of Land Appeals) and we expect it to be resolved before the end of the year.”
The state made a request for priority conveyance of the lands on Oct. 17, 2014, during the administration of then-Gov. Sean Parnell, stating that the lands are not within the ANWR boundary and are available for selection by the state.
The state said the western boundary of ANWR had “been improperly mapped” for many years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. USFWS revised federal maps of the region to indicate that the Staines River is a part of the Canning River - the western boundary of ANWR as defined by Public Land Order 2214, issued in 1960.
The Parnell administration, following historical and legal research as well as a field inspection by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Department of Law, concluded that the Staines is a separate river unto itself.
When Interior refused to transfer the lands, the state filed an appeal with IBLA.
IBLA is an appellate review body that exercises the delegated authority of the Secretary of the Interior to issue final decisions for the Department of the Interior.
Its administrative judges decide appeals from bureau decisions relating to the use and disposition of public lands and their resources, and other matters.
IBLA is headed by a chief administrative judge, according to the board and is separate and independent from the bureaus and offices whose decisions it reviews. Its decisions are final for the department and may be reviewed by U.S. District Courts.
Disputed lands part of state leasesWhile there is currently no production from the disputed lands, existing state leaseholders are making lease payments on leases awarded with a caveat acknowledging the boundary dispute.
Jade Energy’s Sourdough prospect and 88 Energy’s Yukon Gold are thought to hold oil pools that cross under ANWR’s current border.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management had tentatively approved the state land selections between the Canning and the Staines rivers but rescinded that approval under the conveyance process back in the ‘60s.
The acreage between the Canning and Staines rivers continues to be listed as a high priority area by the state, Marty Parsons, deputy director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water, told Petroleum News in early January 2019.
Under the Alaska Statehood Act, which took effect in 1959, the federal government still owes the state approximately 5 million acres. Because Alaska had no economic base to fund state government, the statehood act made a grant to the new state of 104 million acres of federal lands.
Parsons said he has been spearheading the state’s effort to obtain the remaining 5 million federal acres. Parsons told Petroleum News in 2018 that if the agency’s effort to resolve the dispute - over the lands near ANWR - with Interior is not successful then the next step would be federal court.
Battle waged for decadesThe battle for the acreage on the western border of ANWR goes back decades, to the earliest days of statehood.
On Feb. 24, 2015, Brent Goodrum, director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water in the Department of Natural Resources, provided an update of the boundary dispute to the House Resources Committee of the Alaska Legislature.
In 1964 the state filed general grant selection for lands adjacent to ANWR, then called the Arctic National Wildlife Range, including land west of the Canning River. Later that year, the land selection was tentatively approved by BLM.
The state requested clarification of the range boundary in 1965 and BLM amended the tentative approval, reducing the acres conveyed to the state.
In 1974 the state received patent to land west of the Staines River. In 1978 it reasserted claim to land west of the Canning River - the acreage dropped from the state’s original grant selection in 1965.
After the 1980 passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and creation of ANWR, in 1981 the state “top filed” for land west of the Canning River under Section 906(e) of ANILCA.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published legal descriptions for ANILCA conservation system units in 1983.
In 1992 the state relinquished selection of “those lands within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” but in 1993 the state reasserted “top filing” on land west of the Canning River.
In 2000 the state again reasserted selection for land west of the Canning River and in 2003 the state and USFWS conducted joint field inspection of the ANWR boundary. A report by DNR highlighted errors in the federal description of the disputed boundary.
Goodrum said the 2003 joint inspection was first led by DOI with specialists from BLM and FWS, followed by a state-led a three-day inspection of the area.
The Simpson Report, generated by the state, was supplied to both federal agencies, Goodrum said, but neither of those agencies generated a report back to the state.
After a 2011 DNR Division of Oil and Gas lease sale, including bids on tracts near the disputed boundary, that division began working with the Division of Mining, Land and Water to obtain acreage calculations.
By 2012, staff from the two divisions determined that the boundary issue needed more clarification.
Goodrum said the onshore and offshore boundary disputes involve different legal claims, with the Department of Law and the Division of Oil and Gas working the offshore claims for some 3,000 acres and Law and the Division of Mining, Land and Water working onshore claims.
In 2013 DNR began work to support priority conveyance of uplands and state assertions regarding state/federal land ownership at the ANWR boundary.
- STEVE SUTHERLIN