WASHINGTON (CN) - An Alaskan moose hunter appeared to earn the favor of the Supreme Court on Monday as he challenged a regulation that bans him from using a hovercraft while on federal land.
John Sturgeon used to zip to his moose-hunting spot on the Nation River using a hovercraft, which he says helped him navigate some tricky stretches of the river. But one day in 2007, park rangers stopped him while he was fixing the vehicle on a gravel bar and told him he had to leave the area because it is illegal to use a hovercraft on National Park Service property, through which parts of the Nation River flows.
Upset that he could no longer coast to his hunting grounds on his trusty hovercraft, Sturgeon filed suit in 2014, claiming the regulation was invalid under a federal law that governs the relative authority of the state and federal government over lands in Alaska.
Though the Ninth Circuit affirmed an award of summary judgment to the government, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed in 2016.
In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said the "unique" nature of Alaska spurred Congress to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which in part limited which of the National Park Service's regulations apply in Alaskan parks and conservation areas.
But the Ninth Circuit held on remand that this law merely bars the Park Service from exercising power over "non-public lands.”
Because water that flows through national parks land qualifies as public land, it again determined that the Park Service was free to ban hovercraft.
Before the Supreme Court on Monday, Surgeon's attorney Matthew Findley said the law "represents a series of bargains and compromises," with one of them being the removal of nonpublic land and water from the regulatory grasp of the federal government.
Findley, an attorney with the Anchorage firm Ashburn & Mason, said while other federal entities, such as the Coast Guard, could impose their authority along the river, Congress gave the Park Service no such authority. He cautioned the court that the Park Service's reading of the law gives it much larger influence on Alaskan lands than lawmakers ever intended.
"The reality is, in their view, any time they fell it is necessary or appropriate to regulate outside the boundaries of public lands, they feel they can do that," Findley said.
Alaska Assistant Attorney General Ruth Botstein, who argued on Sturgeon's side, reminded the justices that in many parts of Alaska, "our rivers are our only roads." She said Congress specifically meant to preserve state control over these natural thoroughfares, even as it turned over the land around them to the federal government.
"This court should reject the Park Service's continuing attempts to commandeer control of Alaska's navigable waters, because that is not what Congress intended," Botstein said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned this contention, however, considering ANILCA explicitly requires the Park Service to do certain things that would be impossible without imposing regulations along rivers.
"If the Park Service can't do what you say, any regulation on these rivers, how can the secretary fulfill the statutory duties under ANILCA, unless it's under its organic powers?" Sotomayor asked.
Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler appeared to have a more difficult path during arguments on Monday, as the court's more conservative justices seemed troubled by the authority the Park Service is claiming in the case.
Kneedler said the agency's authority under ANILCA is "pretty close to plenary," even though it has not always used the power to that extreme. He also said the Park Service has a good reason to impose a hovercraft ban on rivers that flow through the parks and that the federal government still maintains an interest in navigable waters that flow through federal lands.
"The purpose of giving regulatory authority to the Park Service is to fulfill the purposes of the park as a whole, not just the waters," Kneedler said.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked Kneedler where he found this grant of authority, noting it would have been a major concession for Alaska's representatives to give up while debating ANILCA.
"This would have been a huge deal for the people of Alaska and the representatives from Alaska to accept full or close to full Park Service authority over all the navigable rivers," Kavanaugh said.