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Angoon, City of v. Hodel

ELR Citation: 16 ELR 20779
Nos. No. A83-234 CIV, (D. Alaska, 10/17/1985) Restrictions on patented lands

The court holds that the time limits in §22(k) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) during which timber export and management practice restrictions apply to private land within the boundaries of a national forest started running from the date of ANCSA's enactment in 1971. Section 22(k)(1) subjects the sale of timber from patented lands in Alaskan national forests to certain restrictions for a period of five years; §22(k)(2) requires that such lands be managed under management principles similar to those used on adjacent national forest lands for a period of 12 years. The court rejects plaintiffs' argument that the two time periods run from the date a particular tract is actually conveyed to a native corporation under ANCSA. Although §22(k) itself is silent on the issue, it is inappropriate in this case to rely on the fact that Congress explicitly specified in other provisions of ANCSA that the time period should begin to run as of the date of enactment. At least two other sections are also ambiguous, indicating Congress was not always so clear. Further, Congress also knew how to explicitly specify that a requirement be measured as of the date of conveyance.

Turning to the regulations promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior, the court holds that the Secretary's interpretation of the statute's is entitled to substantial deference. First, the principle that the degree of deference is reduced where the agency has not held consistently to a single view of the statute is not applicable where, as in the case at bar, the alleged inconsistency occurred in proposed, not final, versions of the regulations. Moreover, §22(k) and the statute itself represent the competing policies of protecting the domestic timber industry, the environment, and the inexperienced native corporations; the Department of the Interior has more expertise in these issues than does the court. Third, Congress delegated broad authority to the Secretary in ANCSA, and the courts are more deferential to administrative statutory interpretations in such circumstances. Congress could have overturned the Secretary's interpretation of §22(k) when it enacted the Alaska Native Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, yet it chose not to do so. The court then holds that the Secretary's interpretation that the time periods in §22(k) run from ANCSA's date of enactment is reasonable. The interpretation is consistent with ANCSA's goals of protecting environmental quality, cushioning local timber industry from immediate detrimental impact as a result of the statute, and preventing native corporations from selling their assets for short-term profit. The interpretation is also consistent with the meaning established by the Ninth Circuit for a similar time limit in §22(c) and with the principle that ambiguous language in laws designed to benefit natives should be resolved in their favor.

Counsel are listed at 16 ELR 20775.