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US Supreme Court to hear appeal of Park Service authority on state lands

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 1, 2015

Eight years after being told by national park rangers that he couldn't use a hovercraft on a river within the boundary of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, an Anchorage man's court case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Sturgeon, speaking by phone from California, said he is both excited and surprised that the nation's highest court decided to take up his case.

"I never thought I'd be sitting in front of the Supreme Court. I didn't think there was a snowball's chance in hell of the Supreme Court accepting it," Sturgeon said.

The case, Sturgeon v. Masica, will be decided by June. (Sue Masica was the Alaska regional director of the National Park Service when the case was filed in late 2007.)

Sturgeon was moose hunting in the fall of 2007 when he parked his hovercraft on a sandbar on the Nation River, which flows into the Yukon River north of Eagle. Two men motored over to him in a boat and, after 30 minutes of conversation about the hovercraft, identified themselves as National Park Service employees and told him that he couldn't use a hovercraft on federal land.

Sturgeon said the men told him he couldn't even start the hovercraft up and motor it back to the boat launch -- forcing him to get a boat big enough to carry the hovercraft back down the Nation and Yukon rivers.

Sturgeon sued because he (and, subsequently, the state) claimed that the river was owned by the state, not the feds. But Sturgeon has lost several times in lower U.S. District Courts and in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco.

Sturgeon said his lawyers now have 45 days to file a formal appeal of the lower courts' rulings upholding the federal government's assertions that it had jurisdiction over the portion of the Nation River where Sturgeon operated his hovercraft.

Sturgeon asserts that a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 prohibits federal control or authority over state lands and waterways that traverse national parks and preserves.

Those courts found that an exemption from federal control of state lands in section 103 of ANILCA means that neither Sturgeon nor the state has a claim to make against federal authority over state lands within national parks, including waterways.

Sturgeon said he and his friend Ed Rassmussen have footed the legal bills for the case so far -- about $300,000 in total. Sturgeon said a group of seven Alaska Native regional corporations and the state government -- who all filed friends of the court briefs supporting Sturgeon's claims -- will help cover the cost of going to Washington, D.C., to put the case before the Supreme Court.

Sturgeon said he operated a hovercraft on the Nation and Yukon rivers for 20 years before the 2007 incident, but he doesn't currently own a working model or have plans to get one.

Sturgeon said he sees his case and that of another man, Jim Wilde -- who was arrested for failing to stop his boat on the Yukon River and allow federal parks employees to inspect it -- as examples of federal encroachment.

"The bigger picture for me was that the federal government made a lot of promises when ANILCA was passed, and one of them was that federal regulations would not apply on state lands." Sturgeon said.

And even though he has lost at every step of the way so far, Sturgeon said the fact that the Supreme Court has decided to hear his case gives him hope he can still win.

"I've had some bad draws on judges in district court and at the Ninth Circuit, so I am more encouraged about the Supreme Court," Sturgeon said.

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