EDITORIAL: Sturgeon case vital for Alaska’s sovereignty

The case of John Sturgeon versus the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior is strikingly important with regard to the sovereignty of the State of Alaska.

The lawsuit brought by Mr. Sturgeon, an Anchorage resident, in September 2011 is a fairly straightforward one and at 21 pages can be considered brief. It is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit’s central contention is this: Mr. Sturgeon and his many supporters argue that the National Park Service does not have the authority to enforce its regulations on state waterways that pass through lands under control of the federal agency.

The point of debate is a phrase in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, approved by Congress in 1980. Section 103, subsection (c) of the act reads as follows:

“Only those lands within the boundaries of any conservation system unit which are public lands (as such term is defined in this Act) shall be deemed to be included as a portion of such unit. No lands which, before, on, or after the date of enactment of this Act, are conveyed to the State, to any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.”

Mr. Sturgeon, in his lawsuit, alleges the National Park Service abided by that language for 15 years, limiting its authority on state lands — the term includes the submerged land of the waterways —within federal conservation units.

But it was in July 1996, the lawsuit says, Park Service leaders chose to extend their authority to encompass navigable waters within conservation unit boundaries “without regard to whether these navigable waters were owned by the state of Alaska.”

In doing so, the Park Service decision suddenly made numerous regulations applicable in Alaska. One of those regulations prohibits the use of hovercraft on public lands within boundaries of Park Service conservation units.

Mr. Sturgeon at the time owned a hovercraft and had since 1990 regularly used it to access moose hunting grounds within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and upriver of the preserve, traveling on the Yukon and Nation rivers.

The genesis of his lawsuit came in September 2007, when on a moose hunting trip, Mr. Sturgeon needed to bring his hovercraft to a gravel bar to repair a steering cable. Three armed Park Service law enforcement employees approached him, according to the lawsuit, and told him it was illegal to operate a hovercraft within the Yukon-Charley’s boundaries.

“When plaintiff advised the NPS employees that the hovercraft was being operated on a state-owned navigable river and thus the NPS water regulations did not apply, the NPS employees advised plaintiff that he was incorrect,” the lawsuit reads.

Following that 2007 incident, Mr. Sturgeon met with Park Service personnel and, because of the Park Service personnel warnings, did not hunt in the area from 2008 to 2010.

He sued in 2011, and Alaskans should be glad that he did.

A federal judge in Anchorage ruled against him, though, as did the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In both instances, the language in Section 103 of ANILCA may have fallen subject to a version of understanding not in line with the intent of Congress.

The state of Alaska submitted a brief in support of Mr. Sturgeon’s view during his appeal to the full 9th Circuit Court. In it, the state argues a ruling against Mr. Sturgeon “upsets ANILCA’s delicate balance between state and federal authority, but it also could be interpreted to impair the ability of Alaska Native corporations to utilize their vast inholdings to secure their economic and cultural well-being as Congress intended.”

Further, the state’s filing details the intent of Congress, noting a Senate report accompanying the final version of ANILCA “plainly explains Congress’ intent to prohibit the Park Service from regulating non-federal land as if it were part of a national park and to not allow the Park Service to decide which of its regulations would apply where.”

The position of Mr. Sturgeon, the state and others appears strong.

Now the matter will be for the Supreme Court to decide. The outcome of the appeal will, regardless of which way the decision comes down, have a direct affect on Alaskans traveling on state waterways that transit units of the National Park System.

Alaskans must hope the justices read the language as Congress intended. If not, the Last Frontier, with its promise of freedom and expanse, will lose a little more of itself to the multitudinous pages of a rulebook.

Updated: 
11/11/2015 - 12:17pm