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By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Alaska is different

Supreme Court opinion resonates with Alaska miners at Fairbanks symposium


Last updated 4/17/2016 at Noon

While not the official theme of the Arctic International Mining Symposium, the notion that Alaska is different was an undertone that permeated every facet of the Alaska Miners Association's spring mining convention in Fairbanks.

Alaska's extraordinary mineral endowment and the unique physical challenges of realizing this potential in a vast and underdeveloped Arctic state are traditional topics for discussion at this biennial gathering in the "Golden Heart City."

This year, however, an exclusive triad of rules meant to carve out areas of Alaska for conservation while at the same time providing the state and its Native peoples large tracts of resource-rich lands and a special set of rules crafted to allow them to sustain themselves off the abundant resources these properties offer was on the minds of many attending the symposium.

It's unanimous

From Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, addressing the mining community via a video link from Washington D.C., to placer miners who have all but given up on attempting to mine federal lands in the state, "Alaska is different" was an oft-cited phrase at the AMA 2016 spring convention. This quote was not attributed to a lifelong Alaskan brimming with frontier spirit but to the eight U.S. Supreme Court justices that recently agreed that it is so.

The august panel of America's top judges, representing a broad spectrum of ideologies, came to this unanimous decision while considering "Sturgeon v. Frost," a case that centers on whether state or federal agencies have jurisdiction over a river running through a national preserve.

This precedent setting case was initiated by John Sturgeon, an Alaskan who has long used the Nation River to traverse the Yukon-Charley National Preserve in route to his hunting spot.

In 2007, however, Sturgeon parked his hovercraft on a gravel bar of the Nation River to repair a steering cable. During the maintenance stop, U.S. Park Service officers informed him that hovercrafts were not allowed in federal parks or reserves.

"To be frank, they were real jerks," Sturgeon recalls.

The longtime Alaskan felt that according to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act his hovercraft was parked on navigable waters that belonged to Alaska and should be subject to the laws of the state.

After a failed attempt to work directly with the Park Service, Sturgeon took the federal land manager to court over his right to use Alaska-owned waterways as a highway to his moose hunting area.

While the Supreme Court did not rule definitively on the legality of a hovercraft traveling on an Alaska-owned river through a national park, all eight justices remaining on the panel after the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that federal land managers need to recognize that a special set of rules apply to Alaska.

"It is a unanimous decision, and these are rare," Matt Findley, the attorney that argued the case for Sturgeon, informed a crowd gathered at the AMA spring convention.

Alaska triad

The Supreme Court cited a triad of statutes - Alaska Statehood Act, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and ANILCA - that sets aside certain lands for conservation, while granting Alaska and the First Peoples of the state the opportunity to choose lands with the resource potential to provide economic opportunities.

The Statehood Act provided Alaska with the choice of 104 million acres so that the state could develop its resource-rich lands to support its residents spread across a vast area; ANCSA, likewise, provided the state's indigenous people 44 million acres of lands for traditional and commercial use as they see fit; and ANILCA set aside 106 million acres of federal lands in Alaska in conservation units.

Without precedent in the United States, this trilogy of statutes gives Alaska special considerations when it comes to lands both inside and outside of national parks and other conservation units in the state.

While not fully resolving whether Sturgeon is allowed to drive his hovercraft on a state-owned river through a federally-held preserve - the case was remanded back to the 9th Circuit Court for reconsideration - all eight Supreme Court justices agreed that lower court's decision didn't take into account the unique authorities afforded to Alaska under ANILCA.

"All those Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule," Chief Justice John Roberts inked in the court's opinion.

The justices also agreed that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals based its ruling against Sturgeon on a narrow and out of context interpretation of the law.

The Supreme Court decision cautioned the Ninth Circuit and other courts that certain words and phrases in a statute should not to be considered "in a vacuum."

Referencing precedent, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme."

The high court's opinion confirms the idea that federal agencies need to consider the exceptional provisions outlined in the overall statutory scheme for Alaska - Statehood Act, ANCSA and ANILCA - which could have implications beyond whether a hunter is subject to state or federal regulations while traveling a river through a national park.

Findley said future land use disputes between Alaska and federal regulators will be subject to the opinion penned by Roberts and unanimously supported by his fellow Supreme Court justices.

"This is the Supreme Court telling you: 'Alaska is different; it gets different treatment, and it should be analyzed differently," the attorney said.

Broader influence

There is no shortage of state-federal land use disputes in Alaska that will likely be influenced by the high-court decision, many of which have implications on the access and development of Alaska's rich mineral resources.

RS 2477 rights-of-way may be one such dispute that is closely related to the "Sturgeon v. Frost" case.

Under the Mining Law of 1866, states were granted right of way for the construction of highways over public lands on historic roads, streets, trails and other such corridors. The Alaska Legislature has identified more than 600 of these rights-of-way in statute, many of which pass through federal lands, including national parks. In many instances, however, federal agencies have refused to recognize these state-owned corridors until forced to by the court.

For the rights-of-way that have been settled and run through federal lands, the RS 2477 corridor is the dry land equivalent to the Nation River.

The Supreme Court opinion also could weigh on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's plans to designate 685,000 acres of the historic Fortymile mining district in eastern Alaska as an Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, a move that would put this area in a conservation unit that is off-limits to mining or other development.

The Alaska Miners Association has argued that this conservation set aside is in direct violation of the "no more clause" in ANILCA.

In brief, the "no more clause" promises that the federal government will not withdraw more than 5,000 acres of Alaska lands without an act of Congress.

While the Supreme Court decision on Sturgeon v. Frost does not address this issue, it is a reminder that Alaska has its own set of rules that federal regulators need to consider before issuing traffic violations on state-owned rivers or creating de facto parks in Alaska.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

Over his more than 11 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.

Email: [email protected]
Phone: (907) 726-1095


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