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Hovercraft-Riding, Moose-Hunting Alaskan Wins SCOTUS Challenge

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 24, 2016 3:58 PM

Meet John Sturgeon, a hunter, a septuagenarian, an Alaskan, and, as of Tuesday, a victorious Supreme Court litigant. Sturgeon wound up before the Supreme Court after his hovercraft broke down as he was traveling through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve to hunt moose. Park officers told the moose hunter he couldn't use his hovercraft, or any other motorized equipment, on the rivers.

Sturgeon objected. The river, he argued, was Alaska's, not the federal governments'. And while longstanding precedent allows the federal government to regulate activities adjacent to and effecting federal lands, Alaska is different, Sturgeon argued. The Supreme Court agreed in a unanimous, but narrow, opinion.

An Alaskan's Right to Hovercraft

The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve isn't your normal national parkland. The preserve lies to the east of Fairbanks, abutting the Alaska-Yukon border and encompassing over 100 miles of unspoiled wilderness.

There are no roads that lead to the preserve, meaning all visitors must come by plane or boat. Or, if you're John Sturgeon, by hovercraft.

While hunting moose in 2007, Sturgeon took his hovercraft down the Nation River, a tributary of the Yukon River which flows through the preserve. Hovercraft work by propelling a high-speed stream of air downward, allowing them to float over land or water. But Sturgeon's broke down and, as he was fixing it, he was stopped by two rangers with the National Parks Service. His hovercraft was illegal, they told him, since the preserve was a location where "the intrusion of motorized equipment by sight or sound is generally inappropriate."

Alaskan Exceptionalism

Those park rangers should have known better than to tell a 75-year-old, hovercraft-riding, moose-killing outdoorsman what he could and could not do. Sturgeon sued, arguing that the National Parks Service had no jurisdiction over the rivers in the Yukon-Charley Rivers Preserve. The river is state land, Sturgeon claimed, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act limits NPS regulations to federally owned lands.

That limitation is unique. The Supreme Court has long recognized federal agencies' right to regulate activities which impact federal lands, whether it's stopping development on the borders of the Grand Canyon, or limiting commercial flights over national parks.

But again, Alaska is different. When ANCILA set aside 104 million acres of land for preservation, it also explicitly stated that only lands within that conservation system could be regulated by the National Parks Service. Section 103(c) of the Act states that "[n]o lands which ... are conveyed to the State, to any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units."

A Narrow Ruling for the Last Frontier

When Sturgeon sued, the District Court and Ninth Circuit both found in favor of the National Parks Service. Because the hovercraft ban applied to all federally-owned lands and waters, the Ninth Circuit reasoned, it does not violate ANCILA's prohibition on NPS regulations affecting non-public land. While ANCILA prevented Alaska-specific regulations of non-federal lands, national ones could still apply.

The Supreme Court disagreed. That reading, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for a unanimous Court, erases the law's distinction between "public" and "non-public" lands within the conservation system.

And that was about it. The Supreme Court passed on the question of whether the Park Service has authority to regulate activities on the Nation River, or even if the river counts as "public land" under the Act. How to answer, or avoid, those hard questions is now the job of the Ninth Circuit, who must retackle the case on remand.

That could mean that Sturgeon's fight to ride his hovercraft and shoot some moose in peace isn't over just yet.

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