Article updated at 5:18 p.m. EDT.
The Supreme Court today strongly asserted Alaska’s uniqueness when it comes to federal regulation of public lands in a win for the state and Native groups hoping to limit the government’s reach.
But the justices’ unanimous opinion in the case Sturgeon v. Frost did little to answer whether John Sturgeon — who brought the case in 2011 — will be able to use his hovercraft to hunt moose within a national preserve. Instead, the justices sent the case back to a lower court to hammer out some of the thornier issues, meaning Sturgeon may face years of more litigation.
"That they overturned it means that we were right," Sturgeon said today. But the move to send the case back to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "is kind of depressing," he added. "I don’t know what that means."
Sturgeon brought the lawsuit against the National Park Service after he and his friends were stopped by enforcement agents in 2007 while hunting in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in eastern Alaska. The officials warned Sturgeon that his hovercraft was barred under federal rules.
But Sturgeon and his attorneys have argued in court that a 1980 law titled the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act — dubbed ANILCA — limits the applicability of Park Service regulations to federally owned lands within park area boundaries. Because Alaska owns its navigable waters and the land beneath them, "NPS may not regulate them pursuant to its general authority to manage national parks," Sturgeon’s attorneys said in a brief to the court.
In today’s unanimous 8-0 opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court dealt with the complicated issues in the case by rejecting the 9th Circuit’s reasoning while punting on other major issues that arose in the lawsuit (Greenwire, March 22).
The justices rejected the 9th Circuit’s view that "the Park Service may enforce nationally applicable regulations on both ‘public’ and ‘non-public’ property within the boundaries of conservation system units in Alaska, because such regulations do not apply ‘solely to public lands within such units.’"
In that decision, the 9th Circuit judges found that ANILCA barred regulations applicable "solely" to public lands within conservation system units. "NPS’s hovercraft ban is not so constrained, and it applies to federally owned lands and waters," they said.
During oral arguments in Sturgeon’s case earlier this year, the justices sharply criticized the 9th Circuit’s reasoning (Greenwire, Jan. 20).
"ANILCA itself accordingly carves out numerous Alaska specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preservation areas," Roberts wrote. "All those Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule. Yet the reading below would prevent the Park Service from recognizing Alaska’s unique conditions."
But Roberts and his colleagues refused to consider several other complicated issues raised in the case, including whether the Nation River qualifies as "public land" under ANILCA and whether the Park Service has separate authority to ban Sturgeon’s hovercraft, even if the river is not "public land" under the law.
"We leave those arguments to the lower courts for consideration as necessary," the opinion says.
That means Sturgeon’s court battle is likely far from over.
"As to the rivers, it really punts on that," said Robert Anderson, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. "It’ll be at least a couple more years of litigation."
The decision won’t have national significance because it "applied only for Alaska," Anderson said. But it was important for Native Alaskan groups concerned about government regulations reaching into private property within conservation units. "They protected the Native corporation lands" from the Ninth Circuit’s broad ruling, Anderson said.
As for Sturgeon, the lawsuit so far has cost him more than $750,000, he said today. He’s gotten financial support from outside groups backing him in the case. "People have been very, very generous, but you can only raise so much money and I don’t know what I’m going to do," he said.
Click here to read the court’s opinion.