Alaska Delegation: Supreme Court Delivers Setback to Federal Overreach

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion on Sturgeon v. Frost, remanding the case back to the lower courts. In an 8-0 opinion, the court overturned the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that the National Park Service could ban the use of hovercraft in eastern Alaska's Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The court found the 9th Circuit’s decision “surprising” and “topsy-turvy.”

While not a decisive victory for John Sturgeon, the Alaska moose hunter who brought the case forward, and who will now have to continue fighting his case in court, it does represent a significant win for Alaska’s sovereignty. The vacated 9th Circuit ruling has been used, and would have continued to be used, by the federal government as a springboard for extensive federal regulation which would have harmed hunters and stymied development on state and Native Corporation lands.

At issue in the case is who, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA), controls state and Native property located within the outer boundaries of ANILCA Conservation System Units. In November, Senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young submitted an amicus curiae brief, arguing that only the State of Alaska and Alaska Native Corporations, and not the federal government, are empowered to make land use decisions on non-federal land in Alaska. 

The court did not resolve the question of whether the Park Service could regulate vessel traffic on the Nation River, or if it could regulate other state and Native Corporation lands in Alaska.  However, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, found that the 9th Circuit’s decision didn’t take into account that ANILCA envisioned that public lands in Alaska would not be managed like other public lands across the country. 

“ANILCA repeatedly recognizes that Alaska is different —from its ‘unrivaled scenic and geological values,’ to the ‘unique’ situation of its ‘rural residents dependent on subsistence uses,’ to ‘the need for development and use of Arctic resources with appropriate recognition and consideration given to the unique nature of the Arctic environment,’” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

“John Sturgeon is a hero for taking his challenge all the way to the Supreme Court and winning this initial, and unanimous, victory over a tortured legal interpretation by the National Park Service,” Senator Murkowski said. “Unfortunately, this decision is not the last step, but only the start of the next chapter in our fight to secure the rights promised to Alaskans.  We must continue to rally behind John, and support his cause, until lower courts also recognize what the Supreme Court affirmed today: that Alaska is different, even exceptional, and that federal overreach is unacceptable.”

“I am gratified that the Supreme Court unanimously recognized unique nature of Alaska and that the 9th Circuit’s decision was fundamentally flawed,” said Senator Sullivan.  “In Alaska, our land and our waters are our lifeblood. The more the federal government takes, the less control we have over our economic destiny. The people of Alaska know this. John Sturgeon knows this. As evidenced by the opinion, members of the Supreme Court seem to understand this.  However, I am disappointed that John Sturgeon didn’t get the decisive victory that he deserved.  We all need to continue to work together on these important issues, including continued vigilance when Federal agencies ignore ANILCA.”

“Today’s ruling wasn’t the KO punch we were looking for in our fight against the massive overreach of the National Park Service, but it was a small victory for Alaska and the unique relationship we share with the federal government,” said Congressman Young. “From the beginning, a unified front has argued that the National Park Service has overstepped its boundaries through a wholesale neglect of ANILCA and many provisions that protect Alaska’s sovereignty. While the Supreme Court stopped short of reaching a conclusion today, they went to great lengths to describe the uniqueness of Alaska and the historical context to the many instances in ANILCA that prescribe exceptions to the status quo federal management – recognizing ‘the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule.’ I hope the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation’s leading activist court, takes the Supreme Court’s condemnation of their legal interpretation seriously as they reconsider this extremely critical case.”