FAIRBANKS, Alaska – The U.S. Supreme Court stated in a 9-0 ruling Tuesday that rivers that flow through national parks in Alaska aren’t part of the park units and aren’t subject to National Park Service rules, including a rule that famously bans hovercrafts.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court opinion specifically states that Anchorage hunter John Sturgeon will be able to bring his hovercraft back to Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, ending a legal battle with the Park Service over the agency’s authority that dates to 2007 and which has taken him to the Supreme Court twice.
“Sturgeon can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in Tuesday’s unanimous opinion.
The case left unchanged the “Katie John” precedent cited in a lower court ruling that was up for appeal and which sets the basis for the duel state/federal management of subsistence fishing in Alaska.
The 30-page Supreme Court opinion states that the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals misinterpreted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. ANILCA is the 1980 law that set aside a California-sized group of lands for national parks and other conservation units in Alaska, but which treated the West Virginia-sized inholdings within the park boundaries differently than the inholdings in all other national parks in the United States. These inholdings include the beds of navigable rivers, which are state property.
“ANILCA changed nothing for all the state, Native and private lands (and waters) swept within the new parks’ boundaries,” Kagan wrote. “Those lands, of course, remain subject to all the regulatory powers they were before, exercised by the EPA, Coast Guard and the like. But they did not become subject to new regulation by the happenstance of ending up within a national park.”
A separate concurring opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the other justices that the Park Service can’t enforce its hovercraft ban on rivers within park boundaries in Alaska. But the concurring opinion added that it would be “absurd to think that Congress intended for the (Park) Service to preserve Alaska’s rivers, but left it without any tools to do so.”
In this concurring opinion, in which Sotomayor is joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she outlines other ways the federal government might be able to regulate waterways that flow through park boundaries in Alaska.
As Sturgeon’s case moved through the courts, it became emblematic of the larger struggle between state and federal land management in Alaska, a topic that’s often important in state politics.
Sturgeon received support briefs from the administration of former Alaska Govs. Sean Parnell and Bill Walker as he sued the Park Service and appealed loses in lower courts. Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statement Tuesday praising the Supreme Court ruling and criticizing the California-based appeals court that twice ruled against Sturgeon.
“Today’s ruling represents an important moment for Alaska’s sovereignty and the rule of law,” Dunleavy said in a statement Tuesday. “Once again, the Supreme Court shows why the Ninth Circuit Court is one of the most out of touch and out of line courts in the nation.”
Sturgeon spent more than $1.2 million on legal fees in the case. He got support from hunting groups including the Alaska Outdoor Council. He had several fundraiser events in Fairbanks.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Sturgeon said all the expense and time of the legal challenge was worth it, but it feels strange for the case to finally be over.
“It’s feels kind of surreal after 12 years,” he said. “Going to the Supreme Court itself is kind of surreal.”
Sturgeon said he’s going to be busy in the next few days writing thank you notes to all the people who have helped him in his legal challenge. When he gets the chance, he’s looking forward to getting out in his hovercraft, which he took out of storage and rebuilt last fall.
John decision untouched
What started as a battle over state rights and access to land for hunting had the potential to spill into subsistence fishing policies when an appellate ruling last year justified Park Service authority on the river by citing the case of Katie John, an Ahtna leader whose challenge to state fishing rules created the establishment of federally-managed subsistence fishing in Alaska that gives priority to the state’s rural, largely Alaska Native population. The Ahtna Native regional corporation filed a brief in the Supreme Court case asking the court not to change the Katie John precedent.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling mentioned the Katie John case only once — in a footnote — stating it wasn’t an issue in this case and would not be changed.
Sturgeon has said he didn’t intend to upend the Katie John case with his lawsuit.
The Alaska Federation of Natives distributed a news release Tuesday that praised the ruling both for invalidating National Park Service authority on inholdings and not touching the Katie John ruling.
“This is good news for the Alaska Native community and for rural Alaskan subsistence users,” AFN president Julie Kitka said in the written statement.
“Our Board previously approved two principles related to the case: private landowner’s access to — and use of — inholdings within conservation system units; and no net loss to subsistence rights. This ruling accomplishes both.”
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