Fate of hovercraft murky as justices weigh Alaska case

By Robin Bravender | 01/20/2016 01:16 PM EST

Supreme Court justices appeared torn today as they grappled with a complicated case about whether the government can bar an Alaskan moose hunter from using his hovercraft in a national preserve.

The case centers on John Sturgeon, 70, who was told by National Park Service employees in 2007 that he couldn’t use the vessel to hunt within Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (Greenwire, Jan. 19). He argued that a 1980 law titled the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) mandates that Park Service rules don’t apply to Alaska’s navigable waters, which are owned by the state.

As the case was argued before the high court today, several of the nine justices appeared inclined to uphold the government’s ban on hovercrafts in the Alaskan waters. They questioned how rules from other agencies could apply to those waters, but Park Service rules wouldn’t apply.


Justice Elena Kagan, a Democratic appointee, wondered why U.S. EPA or the Coast Guard, for example, would have the authority to regulate the waters, but the Park Service would not.

"The federal government can regulate navigable waters," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointee who often serves as the court’s decisive vote.

Rachel Kovner, assistant to the solicitor general, argued on behalf of the Obama administration today that the Park Service can legally apply its rules on all navigable waters within the boundaries of the agency’s lands in Alaska.

Although the state of Alaska owns the water in question, the government holds a title to the interest in the water, Kovner said.

Conservative justices appeared critical of the government’s argument and of the lower court ruling that upheld the hovercraft ban.

"You have to show, I think, that the federal government holds title to the water," said Justice Antonin Scalia, a Republican appointee.

A U.S. district court in Alaska upheld the Park Service’s hovercraft ban in 2013, and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision in 2014.

Justice Samuel Alito, a Republican appointee, appeared skeptical of the validity of the 9th Circuit decision.

In that decision, 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.

"We hold that even assuming that the waters of and lands beneath the Nation River have been ‘conveyed to the State’ for purposes of ANILCA … NPS’s hovercraft ban is not a regulation that applies solely to public lands within [conservation system units] in Alaska," that opinion said.

A decision in Sturgeon v. Frost is due by the end of June. Bert Frost is named in the lawsuit in his official capacity as Alaska regional director of the National Park Service.