It can’t be often that Supreme Court justices utter the term “hovercraft,” let alone rule on their use, but just last week, the court unanimously decided a moose hunter in Alaska was free to, in Justice Elana Kagan’s words, “Rev up his hovercraft in search of moose.”

The case is a fascinating look at how Alaska’s lands are managed differently than public lands in the rest of the country.

The disagreement that worked its way up to the Supreme Court began when a hunter in Alaska, John Sturgeon, was warned by NPS rangers that he couldn’t operate his hovercraft on the Nation River, something Sturgeon had done for many years. Sturgeon argued that the NPS had no authority over rivers in Alaska, due to a legal provision in the Alaska Native Interest Lands Conservation Act, which put massive areas of Alaskan wilderness under NPS jurisdiction.

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Except for the rivers.

To appease landowners, native Alaskan groups, and the State of Alaska, a section of the ANILCA allowed for rivers to be kept outside the NPS jurisdiction. Since Alaska allows hovercrafts on state waterways, Sturgeon argued the NPS had no authority to restrict their use in Alaska, even in national parks.

The state of Alaska joined Sturgeon in a lawsuit he brought against the NPS affirming his right to operate the hovercraft wherever he pleased. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the NPS but Sturgeon and Alaska appealed to SCOTUS. Last week, Sturgeon won when SCOTUS, in an opinion written by Kagan, handed down the unanimous decision against the NPS.

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SCOTUS ruled that though rivers run through national parks in Alaska, they are nevertheless subject only to Alaskan law, a position unique to Alaska.

“Park Service regulations—like the hovercraft rule—do not apply to non-public lands in Alaska even when those lands lie within national parks. Section 103(c) ‘deem[s]’ those lands outside the parks and in so doing deprives the Service of regulatory authority,” Justice Kagan wrote.

The ruling was very much simply according to the letter of the law. Justice Sotomayor warned that even though she was siding with the rest of the justices, she worried that Congress surely never meant to keep rivers separate from the lands they flow through when they set Alaskan land aside to be managed by the NPS. She hopes Congress will, therefore, make more clear how ANILCA is meant to govern rivers.

For the time being, at least, Alaska, and not the federal government, has final say over what happens on rivers that flow through national parks.

Photo: Kevin Noble


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