United States v. Alaska
Annotate this Case
521 U.S. 1 (1997)
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
OCTOBER TERM, 1996
UNITED STATES v. ALASKA
ON EXCEPTIONS TO REPORT OF SPECIAL MASTER
No. 84, Orig. Argued February 24, 1997-Decided June 19, 1997
This suit involves a dispute between the United States and Alaska over the ownership of submerged lands along the State's Arctic Coast. The Alaska Statehood Act expressly provides that the federal Submerged Lands Act applies to Alaska. The latter 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 claims a right to offer lands in the Beaufort Sea for mineral leasing, and Alaska seeks to quiet its title to coastal submerged lands within two federal reservations, the National Petroleum ReserveAlaska (Reserve) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, formerly known as the Arctic National Wildlife Range (Range). Both parties have filed exceptions to the Special Master's Report.
1. Alaska's exception to the recommended ruling that the State's submerged lands in the vicinity of barrier islands along its Arctic Coast should be measured as a 3-mile belt from a coastline following the normal baseline under the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (Convention) is overruled. The coastline from which a State measures its Submerged Lands Act grant corresponds to the baseline from which the United States measures its territorial sea under the Convention. According to the Convention's normal baseline approach, each island has its own belt of territorial sea, measured outward from a baseline corresponding to the low-water line along the island's coast. Alaska objects to the application of this approach to the Stefans-
son Sound-where some offshore islands are more than six miles apart or more than six miles from the mainland-because it gives the United States "enclaves" of submerged lands, wholly or partly surrounded by state-owned submerged lands, beneath waters more than three miles from the mainland but not within three miles of an island. United States v. Louisiana, 470 U. S. 93, does not foreclose the conclusion that the Convention's normal baseline principles apply here. Alaska has not identified a firm and continuing United States rule treating waters between the mainland and fringing islands as "inland waters" when the openings between the off-lying islands are no more than 10 miles wide. The sources before the Master showed that, in its foreign relations, particularly in the period 1930 to 1949, the United States had advocated a rule under which objectionable pockets of high seas between the mainland and fringing islands would be assimilated to a coastal nation's territorial sea. Such a rule would have been inconsistent with Alaska's 10mile rule, under which no objectionable pockets of high seas would have existed. The United States also advocated a rule for treating the waters of a strait leading to an inland sea as inland waters, but it is not equivalent to Alaska's rule. Pp. 7-22.
2. Alaska's exception to the recommended ruling that a gravel and ice formation known as Dinkum Sands is not an island constituting part of Alaska's coastline under the Submerged Lands Act is overruled. The Master did not err in concluding that Dinkum Sands does not meet the standard for an island because it is frequently below mean high water. The Convention's drafting history suggests that, to qualify as an island, a feature must be above high water except in abnormal circumstances. It does not support the broader conclusion that a feature with a seasonal loss in elevation that brings it below mean high water, such as Dinkum Sands, qualifies. Nor is there any precedent for deeming Dinkum Sands an island during the periods when it is above mean high water. Pp.22-32.
3. Alaska's exception to the recommended ruling that submerged lands beneath tidally influenced waters within the Reserve's boundary did not pass to Alaska at statehood is overruled. The United States can reserve submerged lands under federal control for an appropriate public purpose. Under the strict standards of Utah Div. of State Lands v. United States, 482 U. S. 193, the 1923 Executive Order creating the Reserve reflected a clear intent to include submerged lands within the Reserve. In addition to the fact that the Order refers to coastal features and necessarily covers the tidelands, excluding submerged lands beneath the coastal features would have been inconsistent with the Reserve's purpose-to secure an oil supply that would necessarily exist