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Law meant to clarify ownership of minerals under Lake Sakakawea may have bearing in a number of state court battles, according to Gov. Doug Burgum.

The North Dakota Land Board discussed, Wilkinson v. Board of University and School Lands of the State of North Dakota, a dispute between the state and private mineral owners set to go before the North Dakota Supreme Court next month, and a number of other cases involving lake mineral right ownership in a closed-door meeting on Thursday. The governor said he could not comment further on ongoing litigation. 

Joshua Swanson, an attorney for the Wilkinson family, said he was disappointed but not surprised that the board did not take a firm stand.

"If there was a time to say enough is enough, now's that time," he said.

After the passage of Senate Bill 2134, embattled private mineral rights owners thought a solution had been found. The law provided a process to return as much as $187 million in mineral payments received by the state that, in some cases, may have belonged to private citizens who retained their mineral rights when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought the land for Lake Sakakawea.

"I think everyone thought it was resolved," Swanson said.

But the North Dakota Attorney General's office argued in a brief filed Monday that the law did not apply in the case that inspired it, saying the land in question fell upstream and was not "inundated" by Lake Sakakawea.

The Wilkinson property is west of the Highway 85 bridge, which the Attorney General's office argued puts it west of where the river transitions into the lake. It goes on to say the property was never inundated by the lake, even during the 2011 flood, despite aerial photos submitted by the Wilkinsons to the contrary.

Swanson called the argument "mind boggling."

"The maps speak for themselves and show the attorney general is flat wrong," said Swanson, adding that the threat of inundation is exactly why the corps acquired the surface of the Wilkinsons’ property in June 1958.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or


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