United States v. Alaska

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: New York Board of Education Headquarters

DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)

CITATION: 521 US 1 (1997)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 19, 1997

G. Thomas Koester - Argued the cause for the defendant
Jeffrey P. Minear - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the plaintiff

Facts of the case

The United States disputed the ownership of submerged lands along Alaska's Arctic Coast. The Alaska Statehood Act expressly provided that the federal Submerged Lands Act (Act) applies to Alaska. The Act entitles Alaska to submerged lands beneath tidal and inland navigable waters and submerged lands extending three miles seaward of the State's coastline. The United States claimed a right to submerged lands along the Alaska's Arctic Coast for mineral leasing. Alaska, in a counterclaim, sought to quiet its title to coastal submerged lands within two federal reservations, the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, formerly known as the Arctic National Wildlife Range.


Does the United States own disputed submerged lands along Alaska's Arctic Coast?

Media for United States v. Alaska

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1997 in United States v. Alaska

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 19, 1997 in United States v. Alaska

The opinion of the Court in No. 84 Original, United States against Alaska will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

This case is within our original jurisdiction.

Almost 20 years ago, the United States filed a bill of complaint claiming that it owned certain submerged lands on Alaska's Arctic Coast.

Alaska disputed the United States' claim and also argued that it owned certain submerged lands within two federal reservations in Northern Alaska.

The region is rich in oil, and each sovereign wants the right to grant leases for offshore exploration, and to share in oil and gas revenues from these lands.

We appointed a Special Master who oversaw extensive briefing and hearings.

In March 1996, the Special Master filed a 565-page report containing his recommendations.

Both the United States and Alaska submitted exceptions to certain of those recommendations.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we overrule Alaska's three exceptions and sustain the exception of the United States.

Alaska's first exception concerns ownership of submerged lands near a certain barrier island in the Beaufort Sea.

Alaska argues that its submerged lands should be measured by connecting the barrier islands offshore with straight lines and treating those lines as Alaska's shoreline -- coastline.

We reject that approach.

As our President's require, the Master followed the principles of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone to determine Alaska's coastline.

The Master concluded the State owned a three-mile belt of submerged lands along the mainland and around each of the barrier islands.

Alaska argues, we should not apply the convention because we would be abandoning a firm and continuing United States' policy of enclosing waters between the mainland and closely group fringing islands as inland waters.

As we discussed at length in the opinion, the sources Alaska relies on do not bear out of its claim.

Alaska's second exception concerns ownership of submerged lands around a gravel and ice formation known as Dinkum Sands.

The dispute is whether Dinkum Sands qualifies as an island.

We rely on Article 10 Subsection 1 of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone which states that an island is above water at high tide.

The Convention's drafting history suggests that a feature can still be an island even if it's fully submerged at abnormally high tide.

But the evidence before the Master showed that Dinkum Sands frequently slumps below mean high water, an average that would take into account tidal abnormalities.

The Master properly concluded in our view that Dinkum Sands is not an island.

Alaska also challenges the Master's conclusion that the United States retains submerged lands within the National Petroleum Reserve in the northwestern part of the State.

Some of the submerged lands in question are beneath inland waters.

Some are beneath territorial waters.

The Master concluded that different principles govern the analysis of whether lands beneath these two types of waters pass to the State.

While we reject that approach, we agree with the Master's conclusion that the United States retained the submerged lands.

Although submerged lands ordinarily pass to a new State when it joins the Union, the United States can defeat state title by reserving land for an appropriate public purpose.

A 1923 Executive Order creating the reserve, reflected a clear intent to include these submerged lands as reserved and Congress recognized the United States' ownership of the lands in the Alaska Statehood Act.

Finally, the United States challenges the Master's conclusion that certain submerged lands within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska pass to the State.