Sturgeon’s Alaska navigable waters case will head to the U.S. Supreme Court again

U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons)

One of Alaska’s key cases in everyone’s favorite field of federal overreach is headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This morning, the court announced that it would hear for a second time the case brought by hovercraft-using Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon against the U.S. Park Service. Sturgeon won a narrow victory on the case in 2016, but it left the greater dispute over the use of hovercrafts unanswered.

Sturgeon was stopped on the bank of the Nation River Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve by three Park Service rangers who told him the use of a hovercraft was prohibited. His case challenges the U.S. Park Service’s authority to regulate state or private land as well as navigable waters located within the boundaries of a national park.

The state of Alaska has sided with Sturgeon, and said today that it plans to file a brief supporting him and argue for time in front of the courts (it did both during the last appearance before the Alaska Supreme Court).

“We are very excited that the Court has once again recognized the importance of this case to Alaska and the nation,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth. “Alaska will continue to support Mr. Sturgeon in this important states’ rights case to pursue our shared legal goals.”

On the lawsuit’s original trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit court interpreted the existing law to not only side with the feds but to broadly expand the Park Service’s power in Alaska. The lower court ruled that the Park Service couldn’t enforce Alaska-specific rules in Alaska, but could enforce nationwide rules, such as the one against using hovercrafts.

The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the decision that would have expanded the Park Service’s power, calling the ruling a “topsy-turvy approach” to interpreting the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

It left unanswered the core legal question brought by Sturgeon over whether the Nation River he was on counts as public land and whether the Park Service has the authority to regulate such activities on the river. ANILCA allows Alaska-specific carve outs in federal park regulation, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing in the 2016 opinion that “All those Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule.”

Back in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel upheld the Park Service’s authority over the area of the river in 2017.

That’s the decision that’s now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The cost of litigating the case has not gone unnoticed, but so far the state of Alaska has stopped short of providing direct financial assistance to Sturgeon, who estimated that his legal fees had reached about $750,000 by the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016.

During the Alaska House’s work on the state operating budget, Rep. George Rauscher offered an amendment that would have given Sturgeon a $500,000 state grant for his lawsuit. It failed 18Y-22N.

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