Despite all the congressional discussion about how Alaska's national parks would be treated differently than those in the rest of the nation prior to passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980 -- and despite what Gov. Sean Parnell might like to believe -- a U.S. District Court judge has ruled the parks in the 49th state are just like parks elsewhere in the U.S.
And when the National Park Service writes a regulation that is to apply to its parks, that regulation applies in Alaska as well as in Virginia, Montana or California.
The ruling came this week in the case of John Sturgeon, the former state forester, who sued the park service to overturn a regulation that blocked him from continuing to use his hovercraft to hunt moose along the Nation River in far northeast Alaska.
The Nation River is within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve west of Eagle, a small town near the Alaska-Canada border. A recognized, navigable waterway, the Nation is owned by the state of Alaska, but it runs through the nearly 4,000-square-mile quasi-park. A major difference between the national parks and national preserves in Alaska is that hunting and fishing are allowed in the latter.
Not 'Alaska-specific regulations'
Joined by the state of Alaska, 73-year-old Sturgeon -- who has a long history of moose hunting along the Nation -- argued that because the river is state-owned, the park service has no say over what form of watercraft people use to transit it.
The park service disagreed, saying there is a national regulation restricting the use of helicopters and hovercraft in all national parks. Hovercraft, like helicopters, use rotors to provide lift, though the hovercraft flies only inches off the ground.
Sturgeon and the state countered that the federal ban violated section 103 (c) of ANILCA, which basically said the state and Alaska Native corporations, which own 44 million acres of Alaska, were to retain management authority over state lands within new national parks unless it agreed to sign that authority over to the feds.
U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland of Anchorage, however, concluded that ANILCA rules don't apply to hovercraft because the regulations banning the craft are not "Alaska-specific regulations," but nationwide regulations.
Even as park service officials were savoring the victory, Sturgeon's attorney Doug Pope said his client was preparing to take the case to the Court of Appeals.
'Disappointed in the logic'
"Holland is a smart guy, and I admire him personally," Pope said, "but I was disappointed in the logic on this. It basically means that 103 (c) is meaningless."
The state is expected to join Sturgeon on appeal. Parnell has long been unhappy with the feds' approach to managing parks and refuges in Alaska.
"Congress, in clear and plain language, prohibited the application of NPS's (National Park Service’s) regulations to state-owned lands and waters in Alaska," Parnell wrote in a 2010 letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
At least one federal jurist has now questioned that conclusion.
The hovercraft ban, Holland wrote, is "not applicable solely to pubic lands within conservation unit systems (in Alaska). They are regulations of general application across the entirety of the NPS. The foregoing disposes of Sturgeon's and the state's claims based upon NPS regulations."
Pope admitted to fears a federal court judge might side with the feds here.
"I always told John, 'Save your money for your grandchildren," the attorney said. But Sturgeon wouldn't give up the fight because of the principle. Sturgeon is committed to taking this case as far as he needs to.
"This is just the end of the regular season," Pope said, "if you want to use a football analogy."
The good news, he added, was that the water on the Nation Ruver was running high this year, and Sturgeon managed to make it upriver without his hovercraft. He did get a moose.
"He's the real deal," Pope said. "He's a real hunter, not a poser."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com