The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Alaskan wins million-dollar moose hunt

John Sturgeon's case forces the bureaucracy to recognize that state in-holdings may not be subject to NPS regulation

I don't really know how much it has cost John Sturgeon to go to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) twice in order to vindicate his right to use a hovercraft to go hunting on the Nation River, nor do I really care; but it must have been scratching on the underside of a million dollars, if not a great deal more. Lots of people made individual contributions, and there has been tremendous moral support for him in his decade-long interface with the American system of justice.

Getting any case before SCOTUS requires overcoming long odds, and to do it twice is nothing short of a miracle, especially when the matter is truly Alaska-specific.

Yet Sturgeon did that and got unanimous decisions both times. This time, Justice Kagan prepared the March 26 decision of the court, with Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg concurring.

Most Alaskans know the story of how Sturgeon was fixing the steering cable on his boat while on the Nation River within the Yukon – Charley National Preserve on the way to a legal moose hunt when three officious National Park Service rangers required him to cease using his vessel inside a National Park Unit. They wouldn't even let him drive it out.

The rangers explained that the use of hovercraft inside a unit of the National Park System violated nationwide Park Service regulations.

Sturgeon complied with the ranger's directions and then sued the NPS, losing at the Federal District Court level and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before having the matter considered by SCOTUS.

SCOTUS ruled that the Ninth Circuit was wrong, famously reminding the NPS that Alaska is different. The Ninth Circuit nonetheless reaffirmed that the NPS had jurisdiction to regulate navigable waters within Park System units.

In a carefully-worded decision that left nothing to chance, Justice Kagan walked readers through every conceivable argument that the NPS could make, formulating a point-by-point reason catalogue of why the NPS's interpretation was legally wrong.

First, the Justice Kagan made it perfectly clear that lands underlying navigable waters within Alaska's National Park units are not the property of the Park Service. She pointed out that the State of Alaska owns the riverbed and has the exclusive jurisdiction to regulate and police those waters at least with regard to Park Service specific regulations.

Next, she parsed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) section 103(c) comprehensively proving that the Park Service could only achieve its goal of blocking Sturgeon's use of the waterway was if the statute was read in a totally meaningless way.

The take-away from Justice Kagan's analysis is that navigable waters in Alaska, even though they flow through units of the National Park System are not necessarily federal lands and except in very limited circumstances, Park Service regulations do not apply.

This decision is a major victory for all Alaskans, because it underscores once again that Alaska is different; however, the hero of this story remains John Sturgeon. Mr. Sturgeon had both the will and the opportunity to initiate a challenge and the resources to see it through.

Sturgeon was not the first Alaskan to be stopped by the Park Service for participating in lawful activity on navigable waters inside a Park unit; nor is he likely to be the last. Many of us for a very long time have advocated the right of the State to manage its waters, especially when it comes to conflicts with the managers of Conservation System units.

Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court is a very long way away from the Nation River, not only in terms of the tricky path through the court system but also in terms of time and money. In many instances, the Ninth Circuit has constituted an insurmountable intervening barrier.

In the ANILCA, Congress crafted a huge compromise intended to balance the preservation of Alaska's many scenic wonders against the need to develop its ample resources in an environmentally sound and safe manner. Yet the Ninth Circuit has, time and time again, disregarded the pro-development provisions of ANILCA in favor of the preservationist parts of the Act.

While Congress, on the one hand, and SCOTUS, on the other, have teamed up to support a land management vision that is consistent with Alaska's Constitution, the federal Executive Branch through its agencies has bullied the people of the state unmercifully.

Perhaps now that we have a Secretary of the Interior (and perhaps a Secretary of Agriculture) who is willing to defend the laws affecting Alaska by interpreting their obligation in terms of statutory intent instead of activist petitions from non-governmental organizations, Alaska will be able to draw a breath, before proceeding along the pathway laid out in the Statehood Act.

Our hat is off to John Sturgeon, a true Alaskan hero.


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