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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
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SCOTUS Victory for Hunter With Hovercraft

(CN) - The Supreme Court sided with a hovercraft-owning moose hunter on Tuesday, vacating a ruling against him in a case of state sovereignty versus federal authority centered on an Alaska river.

John Sturgeon sued the National Park Service and others after two rangers kept him from using his hovercraft during a 2007 moose-hunting trip along the Nation River, which flows through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Alaska intervened in the case to question a requirement that forced state scientists to obtain federal permits for a genetic study of chum and sockeye salmon on the Alagnak River, which flows through the Katmai National Park and Preserve.

The state and Sturgeon both argued that, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the agency has no authority over state-owned lands and rivers that are also "within the boundaries of National Park System units in Alaska."

Sturgeon said that the alleged federal overreach continued to prevent him from hunting in the preserve, and Alaska argued that the agency's permitting process drove up costs and stepped on its sovereignty.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland in Anchorage ruled for the Park Service, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed in 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last October.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court unanimously vacated the Ninth Circuit's ruling and remanded the case for reconsideration of Sturgeon's arguments.

The high court did not address whether the National Park Service has authority to regulate Sturgeon's activities on the Nation River, finding only that the Ninth Circuit misinterpreted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that ANILCA, which set aside 104 million acres of Alaskan land for preservation purposes, "repeatedly recognizes that Alaska is different" and "accordingly carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service's general authority over federally managed preservation areas."

"All those Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule. Yet the [Ninth Circuit] would prevent the Park Service from recognizing Alaska's unique conditions. Under that read­ing, the Park Service could regulate 'non-public' lands in Alaska only through rules applicable outside Alaska as well," Roberts wrote. (Emphasis in original.)

He continued: "Thus, for example, if the Park Service elected to allow hovercraft during hunting season in Alaska-in a departure from its nationwide rule-the more relaxed regulation would apply only to the 'public' land within the boundaries of the unit. Hovercraft would still be banned from the 'non-public' land, even during hunting season. Whatever the reach of the Park Service's authority under ANILCA, we cannot conclude that Section 103(c) adopted such a topsy-turvy approach."

The Supreme Court declined to rule on whether Sturgeon has a right to use his hovercraft near the Nation River, leaving that question, and the larger issue of whether the National Park Service has regulatory authority in that area, to the lower court.

"The parties' arguments in this respect touch on vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other. We find that in this case those issues should be addressed by the lower courts in the first instance," Roberts wrote for the high court, which currently has eight members as D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia is pending.

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