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Press Release

State Receives $593,000 in Legal Fees from BLM

October 12, 2017

(Anchorage, AK) – The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently paid the State $593,007.71 in legal fees as a result of a federal court’s decision that the federal agency acted in bad faith in a lawsuit involving the navigability of an Alaskan waterway.

“This award of attorneys’ fees is important not only because of the money we got back but because of the message it sent to BLM,” said Deputy Attorney General Ed Sniffen. “We hope this will convince the federal agencies to sit down with us and work through these disputes in advance, instead of forcing us to file needless litigation.”

In June 2012, the State filed a lawsuit to resolve a longstanding dispute over the ownership of lands beneath the Mosquito Fork, a tributary of the Fortymile River. The fundamental dispute was whether the Mosquito Fork was a navigable waterway, which, under the Submerged Lands Act (43 U.S.C. §§1301-1315) and equal footing doctrine, meant that the bed of the river is owned by the State. BLM’s refusal to acknowledge the State’s ownership created confusion and hardship for Alaskans seeking to use the river, particularly miners with state mining claims.

As the case proceeded over multiple years, BLM continued to contest the State’s ownership, making many arguments that had already been rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. BLM suddenly changed course shortly before trial. One day prior to a court hearing, the federal government abandoned all legal claims to the submerged lands, essentially nullifying the lawsuit.

Although the State had achieved its goal of quieting title to the riverbed, the State had needlessly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing for trial. The State filed a motion for full attorneys’ fees on the grounds that BLM acted in bad faith during the lawsuit. In May 2016, the federal district court agreed with the State. In her 22-page opinion, Judge Gleason stated that the federal government’s frivolous arguments increased the State’s costs of litigation. The court ultimately ordered BLM to reimburse the State $593,007.71 of its attorney’s fees and costs. BLM withdrew its appeal and recently paid the State the awarded amount.

A copy of Judge Gleason’s decision is attached.

For more information, contact Assistant Attorney General Jessie Alloway at jessie.alloway@alaska.gov or 269-5100.

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