Ban on hovercraft use within Alaska preserve stands, another appeal may come up

The man at the center of a lawsuit over National Park Service authority to regulate rivers in Alaska parks is reacting to the most recent legal decision in the case.

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A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision Monday in the long-running case filed by Anchorage hunter John Sturgeon. Sturgeon contested a National Park Service ban on hovercraft use within Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, in the eastern interior. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded it back to the 9th Circuit in March. The appeals court again backed Park service authority. Sturgeon points to a disconnect between the two courts.

“Supreme Court said over and over again, Alaska’s different by law. That our laws are different,” Sturgeon said. “That our parks, reserves and refuges are supposed to managed differently than the Lower 48.”

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that established Yukon Charley Preserve, and many other federal parks in Alaska, allows NPS system wide regulations, like the hovercraft ban, to be applied inside Alaska parks, but Sturgeon maintains non-federal in-holdings, like state owned rivers, are not included.

“The federal government should not have control over state-owned navigable waters. That’s the bottom line,” Sturgeon said.

The environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska is sided with the park service in the Sturgeon case. Attorney Katie Strong said this week’s ruling clarifies a difference between river waters and other park in-holdings, like state and Alaska Native lands, which are immune from NPS regulations.

“Waterways flowing through the parks are public lands and they are to be regulated by the Park Service,” Strong said. “To protect the parks as Congress intended when establishing them.”

The Sturgeon case, and the broader fight over control of Alaska Rivers, may not be over. Sturgeon said he’s considering another appeal, noting that his case is backed by the state, numerous groups and many Alaskans.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.