Moose hunter bags partial win in hovercraft case

The Supreme Court today knocked down a lower court's ruling that banned Alaskan moose hunter John Sturgeon from riding his hovercraft in a national preserve but punted on some of the case's complicated legal questions.

The justices issued a unanimous 8-0 opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts that topples the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision that found National Park Service rules ban the use of hovercraft in eastern Alaska's Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

In today's opinion, Roberts rejected the lower court's interpretation of the law and sent the judgment back for further action. The justices declined to weigh in on several important arguments made in the case, saying lower courts should address those issues. Today's opinion doesn't appear to be a decisive win for Sturgeon, as it punts on some of the thornier legal issues about state sovereignty versus federal authority in Alaska.

Sturgeon's lawyer argued before the court in January, contending that Park Service rules and the ban don't apply on Alaska's navigable waterways (Greenwire, Jan. 20).

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.

Sturgeon was backed by Alaska, the state's congressional delegation, Alaska Native corporations and others.

The Obama administration disagreed, arguing in court that the Park Service can legally apply its rules on all navigable waters within the boundaries of the agency's lands in Alaska. The government contended 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.

Sturgeon's hovercraft has been mothballed since 2007, when Park Service enforcement agents approached him to inform him about the ban. "If I win my court case, I'll be back there with my hovercraft," Sturgeon said last year in an interview. "We'll be looking for moose again" (Greenwire, Nov. 23, 2015).

Click here to read the opinion.

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