WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lower court ruling Tuesday that barred an Alaska moose hunter from running his hovercraft in a national preserve, but stopped short of handing him and the state the victory they sought, leaving questions unresolved about federal authority in Alaska's national parks, preserves and other "national interest" lands.
"We've won a big battle," said the moose hunter, John Sturgeon. "The war is not over."
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision of all eight justices, declared the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had taken a "topsy-turvy" approach to the law when it said a National Park Service rule banning hovercraft in the Lower 48 must be applied to Alaska. It ordered the lower court to reconsider the issue in light of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created an "Alaska exception" to many of the normal rules applied to national parks, wilderness areas, refuges and other preserves.
The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, punted several major issues of the case back to the 9th Circuit: whether the Nation River or other rivers or private or state lands within park or preserve boundaries were only subject to state law, and whether the federal government could also regulate activity on them.
"The Court leaves those arguments to the lower courts for consideration as necessary," Roberts wrote.
Sturgeon said while he is very happy with the ruling, he's discouraged that his fight — an expensive one to wage — will head back to the appeals court. In telling 9th Circuit how to apply the law, the Supreme Court didn't tell it what conclusion to reach. Sturgeon could find the hovercraft ban still in place by the time next hunting season comes around.
Some state officials expressed joy at the decision, declaring it a victory for Alaska over federal authority. Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican who announced a hearing on the case in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, said, "What a great day it is for Alaska."
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said, "Today's ruling wasn't the KO punch we were looking for in our fight against the massive overreach of the National Park Service, but it was a small victory for Alaska and the unique relationship we share with the federal government."
Environmental organizations said they expected Sturgeon would eventually lose his case. Katie Strong, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, said, "We are optimistic that the 9th Circuit will clarify the Park Service's authority over navigable waters so that Alaska's national parks are protected as Congress intended."
Added Jim Adams, the Alaska regional director for National Parks Conservation Association, "We are confident the lower court will again affirm the service's ability to manage rivers inside national parks and protect them from damaging uses such as hovercraft, which can impact wetlands, nesting grounds and other sensitive habitat."
The case stems from a 2007 incident: Sturgeon, on his annual moose hunt, was repairing the steering cable on his 10-foot hovercraft on a gravel bar in the Nation River when several park employees approached. They told him that the National Park Service bars the use of hovercraft on federal conservation lands. He eventually removed the hovercraft, which he had been using since 1990, by hoisting it onto a boat.
Alaska law permits hovercraft, and Sturgeon took his case to court, arguing that the federal ban on hovercraft didn't apply to navigable waterways in Alaska, which he said are owned by the state.
Sturgeon, who has a background in the timber industry and with fighting federal regulations in Alaska, gained support in the state and from Alaska's congressional delegation, among others. They argued ANILCA limited federal control to federally owned lands within park boundaries. And they said the law that gave the state ownership of riverbeds also meant the state could decide how the rivers were managed.
The Obama administration argued that the Park Service rules apply to waters that fall within federally protected areas, like the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
Section 103(c) of ANILCA says that lands conveyed to the state, Native corporations or private parties not be "subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units."
"Sturgeon, the Park Service, and the 9th Circuit each adopt a different reading of Section 103(c), reaching different conclusions about the scope of the Park Service's powers," the Supreme Court wrote.
"That is a surprising conclusion," Roberts wrote of the 9th Circuit's decision. "ANILCA repeatedly recognizes that Alaska is different — from its 'unrivaled scenic and geological values,' to the 'unique' situation of its 'rural residents dependent on subsistence uses,' to 'the need for development and use of Arctic resources with appropriate recognition and consideration given to the unique nature of the Arctic environment.'"
The 1980 lands law is filled with "Alaska-specific provisions" that "reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule," Roberts wrote.
Far to go
In a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Bill Walker said he was pleased with the ruling, though the case "is a long ways from over," he said. "It's good to have the Supreme Court acknowledging the importance of ANILCA and the importance and the uniqueness of Alaska."
Walker noted that Roberts wrote at some length in the ruling about the history of Alaska, from "Seward's Folly" in 1867, to "Three Lucky Swedes" striking gold in Nome in 1898, through the 1958 Alaska Statehood Act and the land laws that followed. Roberts mentioned the 1979 protests against federal oversight, when Alaskans set out to violate Park Service rules for two days "by camping, hunting, snowmobiling, setting campfires, shooting guns, and unleashing dogs."
Those facts about Alaska's history will provide helpful citations in future cases, Walker said. "Sometimes it's not what's said, but who said it," he added.
The Alaska history lesson Roberts included in the ruling served as a nod to his personal history with litigation in the state. Before joining the Supreme Court, Roberts represented Alaska in two cases, each weighing questions of the land and water rights of the state and its citizens.
In 1998, Roberts argued for the state at Supreme Court in Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, winning a decision that kept the tribe from taxing non-tribal members doing business on their village lands, with a ruling that differentiated Alaska Native land from Indian lands in the Lower 48.
And Roberts later represented Alaska before the 9th Circuit in Katie John v. United States, arguing that the state — not the federal government — should have control over the state's navigable waters. The appeals court later decided that the federal government should retain management of subsistence fishing and hunting on about 60 percent of the state's inland waters.
Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit law firm that represented 13 conservation groups in the Sturgeon case, said the narrow ruling Tuesday would unlikely upend federal water controls won in the Katie John case.
"There are centuries of law supporting federal authority over navigable waters and other public lands," Strong said.
In cheering the ruling, Alaska's congressional delegation cautioned the case still has far to go.
"We must continue to rally behind John, and support his cause, until lower courts also recognize what the Supreme Court affirmed today: that Alaska is different, even exceptional, and that federal overreach is unacceptable," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he is "disappointed that John Sturgeon didn't get the decisive victory that he deserved."