Lieberman Questions Interior Department Process for Resolving Land Claims on Federal Properties

WASHINGTON – Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., challenged the Interior Department Monday to explain its decision-making process for settling ownership claims to waterways within national parks and wildlife refuges. In an oversight letter to Interior Secretary Gail Norton, Lieberman said that he was troubled by the precedent set by the Department’s decision to relinquish control to the state of Alaska of parts of a river in the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge, despite strong objections from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lieberman noted that Alaska has already notified Interior of its claim on lands beneath 200 other waterbodies within federal territories in the state, and that these ownership decisions could have profound environmental implications because they affect not only the riverbed but also the lands and wildlife surrounding them.

“[T]he State of Alaska has made it very clear that it wants to obtain title to waterbodies throughout the State so that the State, rather than the Federal land managers, can make decisions regarding their use,” Lieberman wrote. “In some cases, state control could lead to significant changes within these areas. For example, mining, especially placer gold mining, is common in Alaska’s streams. If the State is the owner of a riverbed within a park or refuge, it might aggressively support mining. Or, it might allow other development – such as oil – in the riverbed.”

Last year Lieberman raised similar concerns about the Department’s implementation of the rule regarding “disclaimers of interest” on federal lands, questioning whether Interior would be conceding ownership of environmentally-sensitive areas in response to “flimsy” claims. In Monday’s letter, Lieberman focused on how the rule was being applied to the ownership of waterbodies and riverbeds, including 23 rivers and lakes within national parks, and 65 rivers and lakes within national wildlife refuges. For a state claim on submerged lands to be granted, Lieberman said, the waterway involved must have been deemed navigable at the time of statehood. By legal definition, that means, among other things, that a waterway must be suitable for commerce. In the case of the Black River in the Yukon Flats Refuge, Lieberman said, the manager of the property raised objections about the navigability of two stretches of the waterway where claims were being made by the state. The Bureau of Land Management examiner agreed that the evidence of navigability was “slim, indirect, and contradictory,” but nevertheless overrode the Fish and Wildlife Service’s objections regarding one fork and sought additional information before determining the status of the other. Lieberman noted that the Yukon Flats Refuge is the third largest conservation area in the National Wildlife system, and includes one of the greatest waterfowl breeding areas in North America: an estimated 1.6 million ducks, 10,000 geese, 11,000 sandhill cranes, and hundreds of thousands of songbirds nest annually in the refuge. “Lack of title affects a land manager’s ability to do the job; therefore, any objections of the relevant Federal land management agency must be taken very seriously, especially in those cases in which the evidence is uncertain,” Lieberman wrote in conclusion. “BLM should make every effort to be responsive to objections and to recognize the deference afforded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by statute, in the management of refuges. Most importantly, DOI must put the claimant to the test of its proof — whether administratively or in court.” See below for a link to a copy of the letter: