Sagoonick v. State

Decision Date28 January 2022
Docket NumberSupreme Court No. S-17297
Citation503 P.3d 777
Parties Summer SAGOONICK; Linnea L., a minor, by and through her guardian, Hank Lentfer; Tasha Elizarde; Cade Terada; Kaytlyn Kelly; Brian Conwell; Jode Sparks; Margaret "Seb" Kurland; Lexine D., a minor, by and through her guardian, Bernadette Demientieff; Elizabeth Bessenyey; Vanessa Duhrsen; Ananda Rose Ahtahkee L., a minor, by and through her guardian, Glen "Dune" Lankard; Griffin Plush; Cecily S. and Lila S., minors, by and through their guardians, Miranda Weiss and Bob Shavelson; and Esau Sinnok, Appellants, v. STATE of Alaska ; Office of Governor and Governor Mike Dunleavy, in an official capacity; Department of Environmental Conservation and Commissioner Jason Brune, in an official capacity; Department of Natural Resources ; Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission; Alaska Energy Authority ; and Regulatory Commission of Alaska, Appellees.
CourtAlaska Supreme Court

Brad D. De Noble, De Noble Law Offices LLC, Eagle River, and Andrew L. Welle, Eugene, Oregon, for Appellants.

Anna R. Jay and Laura E. Wolff, Assistant Attorneys General, Anchorage, and Kevin G. Clarkson, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees.

Elizaveta Barrett Ristroph, Fairbanks, for Amicus Curiae League of Women Voters Alaska. Teresa B. Clemmer, Peter Van Tuyn, and Jen Marlow, Bessenyey &Van Tuyn LLC, Anchorage, for Amici Curiae Law Professors.

Robert John, Law Office of Robert John, Fairbanks, for Amici Curiae Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Eyak Preservation Council, and Native Conservancy Land Trust.*

Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices.


WINFREE, Justice.


Alaska Constitutional Convention keynote speaker E.L. "Bob" Bartlett, territorial Alaska's delegate to Congress and later one of Alaska's original United States Senators, spoke on November 8, 1955 about the importance of Alaska's natural resources for future generations: "[F]ifty years from now, the people of Alaska may very well judge ... this Convention not by the decisions taken upon issues like local government, apportionment, and the structure and powers of the three branches of government, but rather by the decision taken upon the vital issue of resources policy."1 Bartlett particularly stressed the need to protect Alaska's natural resources from the "robber baron philosophy" that in the past had damaged the territory.2 And a convention consultant later noted: "[W]hat we say about natural resources is not limited simply to lands and to fish ..., but rather being concerned with how we as human beings are going to utilize those so that they become a part of the continuing future development of an area like Alaska."3

More than six decades after Alaska's constitution was drafted, we consider its natural resources provisions in a manner likely not contemplated by Bartlett or the convention delegates. Concerns about protecting and developing natural resources for the State's financial support now co-exist with concerns that constitutionally driven resource development creates an existential threat to human life and therefore itself violates individuals’ fundamental rights under Alaska's constitution.

A number of young Alaskans — including several Alaska Natives — sued the State, alleging that its resource development is contributing to climate change and adversely affecting their lives. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief based on allegations that the State has, through existing policies and past actions, violated both the constitutional natural resources provisions and their individual constitutional rights. The superior court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the injunctive relief claims presented non-justiciable political questions better left to the other branches of government and that the declaratory relief claims should, as a matter of judicial prudence, be left for actual controversies arising from specific actions by Alaska's legislative and executive branches. The young Alaskans appeal, raising compelling concerns about climate change, resource development, and Alaska's future. But we conclude that the superior court correctly dismissed their lawsuit.

A. Constitutional Natural Resource Policy And Framework — Article VIII

It was widely recognized that the Alaska Territory's future success as a state would depend upon natural resource development.4 Statehood bills pending during the Constitutional Convention contemplated transferring to the proposed state substantial federal land, subsurface mineral rights, and the authority to manage fish and wildlife.5 The convention delegates "sought to enshrine in the state constitution the principle that the resources of Alaska must be managed for the long-run benefit of the people as a whole."6 Rather than developing a detailed constitutional code governing resource management,7 the delegates sought to protect the long-term viability of Alaska's natural resources from "the indifference or avarice of future generations" by fixing "the general concept of the public interest" in both Alaska law and "the consciousness of Alaskans."8 The delegates incorporated concepts such as "common use"9 and "sustained yield"10 to promote "a harmonious balance between consumption, preservation, and expansion of natural resources."11 They further protected the public interest by requiring public notice and development of statutory guidelines for state property disposals.12

Article VIII, sections 1 and 2 of the Alaska Constitution express Alaska's resource development policy and direct the legislature to implement it:

Section 1. Statement of Policy. It is the policy of the State to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.[13]
Section 2. General Authority. The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.[14]

Beyond those sections, article VIII explicitly addresses "common use"15 and "sustained yield";16 the "public domain" available for settlement and certain property uses;17 disposition of property interests;18 mineral rights;19 water rights;20 fishing rights;21 private property rights;22 equal treatment with respect to the use of natural resources;23 and the right of eminent domain for the access, extraction, and use of natural resources.24

Article VIII was, when approved, the most comprehensive state constitution provision addressing natural resource management policies and principles,25 and it reflects careful consideration of each government branch's role in managing Alaska's resources and textually establishes the legislature's importance in this policy-making area. We consider the legislature's ensuing statutory policies and the young Alaskans’ claims in light of this constitutional framework.

B. The Political Branches’ Roles Under Article VIII

Article VIII, section 2, commands the legislature "to provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State." To satisfy this obligation the legislature has established numerous interrelated statutory policies and delegated implementation authority to the executive branch. We briefly describe the legislature's policies, starting with land use policies, continuing with specific relevant policies, and concluding with an environmental protection policy.

1. General land use and management policies

Title 38 of the Alaska Statutes contains the legislature's general public land enactments. The legislature's overall land management policy mirrors article VIII, section 1 : "It is the policy of the state to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for the maximum use consistent with the public interest."26 On a more detailed level the legislature has directed that state lands be managed to balance both public and private purposes and that land use choice be determined through inventory, planning, and classification processes established in AS 38.04.060 - .070.27

The legislature has delegated to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), an executive branch agency, the duty to implement the legislature's general public lands policies.28 DNR classifies, and if necessary reclassifies, state lands for various uses.29

DNR also has a duty to work with local governments and the public to adopt, maintain, and revise regional land use plans.30

The legislature has further delegated to DNR authority to manage "exploration, development, and mining" of resources on state lands31 and the authority to lease state lands for oil and gas exploration.32 But the legislature has delegated to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a different executive branch agency, the authority to regulate oil and gas development for conservation purposes.33

2. Specific development policies

The legislature has enacted other statutory policies addressing fundamental aspects of Alaska's natural resources management. The legislature's long-standing economic development policy is found in AS 44.99.100(a) :34

To further the goals of a sound economy, stable employment, and a desirable quality of life, the legislature declares that the state has a commitment to foster the economy of Alaska through purposeful development of the state's abundant natural resources and productive capacity. It is the legislature's intent that this development
(1) offer long-term benefits and increased employment to Alaskans by strengthening and diversifying the state's economic base and encouraging new activities;
(2) provide opportunities for increased personal income or reduced living costs by creating activity in economic sectors;
(3) have a positive effect on the revenue needs and fiscal conditions

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    ...2011) (quoting Amerada Hess Pipeline Corp. v. Alaska Pub. Utils. Comm'n , 711 P.2d 1170, 1178 (Alaska 1986) ).64 See Sagoonick v. State , 503 P.3d 777, 803 (Alaska 2022) ("For questions of law involving agency expertise, we apply the reasonable basis standard and ‘must confirm that the agen......

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