Sturgeon wants protection for Alaskans’ rights and subsistence use

When John Sturgeon walked into my office seven years ago, he had a simple story that the National Park Service had unlawfully denied him access to his longtime hunting grounds in Interior Alaska. His case is in the news now, pending again before the United States Supreme Court. In those seven years, John has carried the burden of protecting Alaskans' right to use Alaska's land and waters.

John had hunted moose for 40 years along the Nation River, which flows into the Yukon downriver from Eagle. It's a "navigable river," which means control of its submerged lands and waters had been granted to Alaska at statehood. The best moose hunting grounds are some 15-20 miles upriver. To get there, however, John had to traverse a portion of the river that runs through the Yukon-Charley National Preserve. Like all Interior rivers, the Nation often runs shallow during hunting season. When this happened, John couldn't get his riverboat upriver to where the moose were. In 1990, he bought a small air cushion vessel, a "hovercraft," about the size of a personal watercraft, to skirt over shallow places that grounded his river boat to a halt when the Nation was low. One day in 2007, he was stopped on a gravel bar to repair a steering cable. A riverboat with National Park Service rangers motored up. The rangers told John it was illegal to operate the hovercraft on the Nation River within the boundaries of Yukon-Charley. John objected that the Nation was state water because it was navigable. The rangers shook their heads. If John tried to launch the hovercraft back into the river, he would be arrested.

I had closely followed the parceling out of public lands in Alaska since statehood. In 1980, Congress established Yukon-Charley as part of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act. Prior to passage, conservation groups sought to sweep navigable rivers and uplands owned by the state and Native corporations into many new national parks and refuges. A deal was struck in Congress. The boundaries could encircle state and private lands as long the law made it clear the National Park Service could not regulate those lands as if they were federal lands. For the next 15 years, the Park Service honored this agreement, but for some inexplicable reason reversed itself in the mid-1990s. The rangers threatening to arrest John Sturgeon in 2007 were implementing that reversal.

To me, borrowing from Robert Service, John's case was simply whether the promise made by Congress to Alaskans was a debt unpaid. I thought John a worthy client to pursue that claim. The very first time we met, he had trouble getting in the door. He had been bowhunting for Dall sheep with a friend in the Chugach Mountains during a snowstorm. His leather boots froze solid, but none of that mattered when his friend was fortunate enough to kill a legal ram. They focused on getting the meat out despite John's freezing feet. John's story convinced me he wasn't picking a fight with the Park Service for ideological reasons. He lived for hunting, and he just wanted to use the vessel he'd always used. "He's the real deal," I told my wife that night.

Recently, John was accused in personal terms in this newspaper of prizing his own right to hunt over Alaska Native subsistence fishing rights. This was upsetting because John has longtime ties to Native communities and has been forceful in his belief that Alaska Natives should have the rural subsistence fishing preference enforced in the Katie John line of cases. As a result, he has argued throughout this case that the courts can let him hunt with the hovercraft without disturbing Native subsistence fishing rights. Last winter, he reached an agreement with the state of Alaska and the Alaska Federation of Natives on a specific legislative fix to ANILCA which would have reaffirmed Congress' promise to Alaska and ratified the rural subsistence fishing preference decisions. The language was successfully introduced in Congress. John took heat from many hunting organizations for taking that stand, but he did it because he thought it was right. The fact that this settlement effort failed disappointed everyone involved.

Now, the Supreme Court is again called upon to decide if the promise made to Alaskans when ANILCA passed is indeed a debt unpaid and John is still arguing that the court can enforce that promise without disturbing Native subsistence fishing rights. The author of the piece accusing John of being anti-subsistence knew all of this. For shame.

Doug Pope is a longtime attorney in Alaska and one of two Alaska attorneys representing John Sturgeon in his case currently pending before the United States Supreme Court.

Doug Pope

Doug Pope