‘Rev up Hovercraft,’ High Court Tells Moose Hunter in National Preserve

WASHINGTON (CN) – Reversing in the Alaskan hunter’s favor for the second time, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that John Sturgeon “can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose.”

The battle erupted in 2007 when several National Park Service rangers spied Sturgeon zipping on a hovercraft across the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Though Sturgeon found that the hovercraft helped him navigate tricky parts of the river to reach his favorite moose-hunting grounds, Park Service rules prohibit the use of such vehicles in federal preserves.

Sturgeon initially defeated the rule before the Supreme Court in 2016 but returned to Washington last year after the Ninth Circuit held on remand that water flowing through national parks land qualifies as public land.

Reversing again Tuesday, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority that bodies of running water are not owned by any party pursuant to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“When non-public lands — again, including waters — are geographically within a national park’s boundaries, they may not be regulated as part of the park,” Kagan wrote. “And that means the Park Service’s hovercraft regulation cannot apply there.” 

Joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stressed this decision was not a reversal of the National Park System’s authority over navigable waters inside all national parks. 

“Even though the service may not apply its ordinary park rules to nonpublic areas like the Nation River, two sources of Service authority over navigable rivers remain undisturbed by today’s decision,” Sotomayor wrote.

The opinion says the service “may well have authority to regulate out-of-park, nonpublic areas in the midst of parklands when doing so is necessary or proper to protect in-park, public areas.” 

Sotomayor also said Congress “most likely” meant for the service to be able to regulate a subset of navigable waters known as Wild and Scenic Rivers to protect their beauty. 

Congress must nevertheless clarify that issue through amendments to the ANILCA, the concurring opinion states.

“It would be absurd to think that Congress intended for the Service to preserve Alaska’s rivers, but left it without any tools to do so,” Sotomayor wrote. 

Matthew Findley, an attorney for Sturgeon with the firm Ashburn & Mason in Anchorage, cheered today’s reversal.

“The court’s unanimous decision speaks volumes and is a tremendous victory not only for Mr. Sturgeon, but for the entire state of Alaska,” Findley said in a statement. “The court recognized the thoughtful compromise struck in ANILCA between conservation, economic development, and state sovereignty, and its decision today restores this balance in Alaska.”

A representative for the National Park Service did not return a request for comment.

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