BISMARCK — The North Dakota Supreme Court ruled against the state on Thursday, Aug. 27, in a years-old dispute over mineral rights beneath Lake Sakakawea.

In a unanimous decision, the supreme court upheld a lower court's ruling from last year, determining that the William Wilkinson family, not the state of North Dakota, has rights to royalties on oil and gas reserves beneath a section of Lake Sakakawea. The decision concludes a years-long legal saga and may also lay the groundwork for future mineral rights lawsuits against the state.

"We're very pleased with the court's decision," said Josh Swanson, who has represented the Wilkinson family in their lawsuit for several years. "It's everything that we had argued for back in April."

The Wilkinson case was a complicated hashing of land rights law that hinged on a contested definition of Lake Sakakawea's borders. North Dakota determines property borders along the water according to something called the "ordinary high water mark" — essentially the historic level of the Missouri River prior to the 1958 construction of the Garrison Dam.

The court based its decision on a high water mark established by the North Dakota Legislature in 2017, writing that there is "undisputed evidence" that the Wilkinson's property is above that level.

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The Wilkinson family originally filed a lawsuit against the state in 2012 to regain rights to land that they say was incorrectly taken from them during the dam's construction decades ago.

But their case has bounced between lower and higher courts over the last few years, as conflicting decisions kept the mineral winnings in play. In 2016, District Judge Paul Jacobson ruled against the Wilkinsons. A year later the lower court's decision was reversed by the supreme court, sending it back to the district level, where Jacobson changed course to rule in favor of the Wilkinson family.

Following the supreme court ruling, Swanson said the state owes the Wilkinson family upwards of $1 million, but the supreme court sent the case back to the district level to hash out how much the state will pay in legal damages.

The implications of the result may extend well beyond winnings of a single family. Swanson said the result establishes a precedent that he expects will trigger a chain reaction of other property owners pursuing mineral rights in court.

"I think that that's a serious problem for the state," Swanson said. "I would assume that in the coming days, weeks my phone's going to be ringing quite a bit."

Asked about the court's decision, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement, "We are reviewing the opinion and will be discussing it with the full Land Board at a special meeting, which should be scheduled soon."

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at