A Williams County judge has ruled that the state no longer has any legal basis to continue claiming it owns the Wilkinson or any other family’s minerals underneath a disputed area of Lake Sakakawea.
The ruling could herald the release of hundreds of millions of dollars to families who have been fighting for about a decade to regain royalties for minerals in their families for 60 or more years.
Northwest District Judge Paul W. Jacobson had initially sided with the state Board of University and School Lands in the case, but the North Dakota Supreme Court disagreed with his ruling. The higher court also instructed him to reconsider the case in light of 2017 state legislation clarifying which mineral rights the state owns.
In its legislation, lawmakers directed the state to determine the historical ordinary high-water mark for the Missouri riverbed channel when Lake Sakakawea was created in the 1950s. The state would own only what was below that line.
The Wilkinson family’s minerals lie in Farm Unit No. 312 in the Buford-Trenton Project, and were found by the state’s study to be entirely above that line, Jacobson wrote. That means the state no longer has any legal basis for further claims to minerals owned by the Wilkinsons — or those of any other family whose properties lie above that line.
The Wilkinsons do not have to pursue a separate lawsuit as argued by the state and Statoil and Gas LP (now known as Equinor), the judge added.
“Contrary to Statoil Oil and Gas LP’s position, the question of the Wilkinson’s mineral ownership as alleged in the amended complaint, and as remanded by the Supreme Court, has been answered as a matter of law by the Industrial Commission,” Jacobson wrote. “The statutory language in Chpt. 61-33.1, NDCC, does not require or otherwise contemplate the Wilkinsons having to file yet another lawsuit to resolve the questions remanded on appeal.”
The Wilkinsons are one of several families living alongside an approximately 11-mile length of Lake Sakakawea who have been fighting to reclaim royalties they and their families had been collecting for decades.
Among these individuals is Edward Lynch, who inherited 267-plus mineral acres from his godparents and great aunt and uncle, the late Henry and Esther Vohs.
Lynch told the Williston Herald he is pleased with the judge’s ruling, but said the state has been delaying and dragging its feet.
“The state has deep pockets,” Lynch said. “They can wait it out. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, have had to pay thousands in attorney fees, even though the state knew they were going to lose (on the remanded case).”
Josh Swanson, the attorney representing the Wilkinsons, told the Williston Herald his clients, which include Lynch and the Wilkinsons, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending mineral rights in their families for 60 or more years.
“With the decision on Friday, I would hope that there is finally some finality to this litigation and that my clients and all the other impacted mineral owners can move on with their lives,” Swanson said. “If the state appeals it, we will respond accordingly, and we feel good about our decision.”
Swanson said hundreds of millions of royalties are owed to the historical mineral owners of the disputed rights.
“You’re talking 10 years of production, with no payments made,” Swanson said.
Some of his clients have also died before the litigation has been settled.
“This should have been the golden years of their lives to enjoy owning this property that was passed down to them,” Swanson said. “They didn’t get to enjoy it because of what the state did to them, and that is fundamentally unjust and unfair.”