Hovercraft-riding moose hunter targets federal land policy

By Robin Bravender | 01/19/2016 12:56 PM EST

The colorful case of the Alaskan moose hunter arrives tomorrow at the Supreme Court.

The colorful case of the Alaskan moose hunter arrives tomorrow at the Supreme Court.

It’s the Obama administration facing off against John Sturgeon, 70, who’s challenging the government’s attempts to block him from using his hovercraft in a national preserve. But the legal fight has drawn in an array of Alaskan lawmakers, Native groups, industries and limited-government advocates concerned that the government is trampling on states’ and private citizens’ rights.

"What began as a lone hunting trip has escalated into a battle over fundamental principles of federalism and the reach of the federal bureaucracy," Pacific Legal Foundation attorneys said in a brief filed with the court last year.


Sturgeon’s feud with the government dates back to 2007, when he and several friends were on their annual moose-hunting trip in eastern Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. National Park Service enforcement agents warned him that his hovercraft — a vessel Sturgeon says allows easier travel over gravel bars and shallow areas than a jet boat — was banned within the preserve. He was told he’d face criminal charges if he operated the air-cushion vehicle again within the Yukon-Charley.

But Sturgeon and his allies are hoping to convince the high court that Park Service rules don’t apply on Alaska’s navigable waterways.

Their argument: 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.

"For Mr. Sturgeon, that means that NPS had no authority to threaten him with a criminal citation for using his hovercraft on the Nation River, a State-owned navigable river in Alaska," they wrote. The Nation is a Yukon tributary within the preserve.

The Obama administration disagrees.

The Park Service can legally apply its rules on all navigable waters within the boundaries of the agency’s lands in Alaska, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and other government attorneys told the justices in briefs. The government contends that ANILCA — which set aside millions of acres of land in Alaska for conservation purposes — doesn’t bar the federal government from regulating navigable waters within national parks in Alaska.

The hovercraft ban was first enacted, the government said in its brief, because the Park Service concluded that the vessels, which travel over land or water on fan-generated air cushions, would allow transportation into "locations where the intrusion of motorized equipment by sight or sound is generally inappropriate."

Lower courts have sided with the government.

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.

But in spite of those rejections, at least four of the Supreme Court’s nine justices saw the case as worthy of another look. Four justices’ votes are required for the court to agree to take a case.

The decision to hear the case surprised many Supreme Court scholars as well as Sturgeon himself, who said in an interview that he "jumped up" when he heard the news.

"I was very, very happy," he said.

His hovercraft has been mothballed since 2007, and he’s hoping a favorable decision will allow him to get it back on the water (Greenwire, Nov. 23, 2015).

Alaskans see federal overreach

For Alaska and others backing Sturgeon in the lawsuit, the case has much broader implications.

"This case is about who has regulatory authority over millions of acres of nonfederal lands and waters within Alaska — the State of Alaska or a federal land management agency," the state told the Supreme Court in a brief supporting Sturgeon.

The lower court’s decision "hinders Alaska’s power to assure continued access to its resources for its people" and "ignores the reality of life throughout much of rural Alaska, where residents face unparalleled challenges, are acutely reliant on the State’s resources, and regularly use the State’s waterways as transportation thoroughfares."

Alaska’s congressional delegation has also weighed in. The three Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young — said in a brief that the Park Service "misread" the law, taking language that "limits federal authority and transform[ing] it into a wellspring of power over Alaska’s lands and resources."

Alaska Native corporations warned the justices that the 9th Circuit’s ruling would allow the Park Service and other conservation agencies to enforce their rules on Native corporations’ lands and waters within the conservation system units created or expanded under ANILCA. Native corporations own about 18 million acres within those conservation units.

Congress specifically intended to exempt Native corporation lands that lie within those conservation units from those rules in order to protect their economic interests, a coalition of Native corporations told the justices in a brief.

As an example, they cited draft oil and gas regulations from the Park Service. The preamble asserts jurisdiction over oil and gas development on Native lands within National Park units, citing the 9th Circuit’s decision as authority, the brief says. "These regulations are thus proposed to apply for the first time to large tracts of Native lands in National Parks in Alaska."

A coalition of environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and Defenders of Wildlife, is siding with the government. ANILCA didn’t repeal the Park Service’s "long-standing authority to regulate navigable waters within park boundaries," the environmental groups wrote. That authority, they said, rests "on the Constitution and on statutes that delegate that authority."

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.