US Supreme Court rules in favor of Sturgeon, limiting NPS jurisdiction of state-owned rivers

John Sturgeon and US Representative Don Young arrive at a 2018 summer fundraiser in Fairbanks by hovercraft. Photo by Dan Bross / KUAC)

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the state controls rivers running through Alaska’s federal conservation lands. In its second consideration of a case filed against the National Park Service by Anchorage resident John Sturgeon, the high court found state rivers are basically exempt from NPS regulation.

On the most basic level, the Supreme Court ruling means John Sturgeon can again operate his hovercraft during fall moose hunts on the Nation River in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

”This last Saturday, I actually took it out, turned the key and, by golly, it worked,” Sturgeon said. “So I’m all ready to go.”

Sturgeon says he rebuilt the small hovercraft over the winter in hope that the Supreme Court would rule in his favor that Alaska rivers are not subject to park service regulation. He says he spent over decade and more than a million dollars trying to prove through the court that Alaska rivers are different.

”One of the things we tried to stress all the way through is that these are our highways, like I-5 in region, Washington and California,” Sturgeon said. “If people want to go to their fish camp or want to go moose hunting, they use these rivers just like highways. And the idea is that they shouldn’t be restricted by the federal government. And that’s exactly what the Supreme Court said.”

The ruling relies on interpretations of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and federal water rights, and affirms that other private property inside conservation units, including Alaska Native lands, are free from park regulation.

”Both the state end holdings and Native end holdings was upheld,” said Alaska Federation of Natives president Julie Kitka.

Kitka says AFN is pleased with the ruling, which also specifically says it does not alter Katie John case rulings backing federal subsistence fishing management on Alaska rivers.

”There was a footnote that clearly indicated the Supreme Court’s wish to keep those intact,” Kitka said.

The National Park Service issued a two-line response to the ruling.

”We thank the Supreme Court for their ruling this morning and we are reviewing the decision to determine what changes will be necessary to bring existing policy in line with today’s ruling,” NPS Alaska region spokesperson Meghan Richotte read.

“It’s important to us that the National Park Service is in a position to protect the resources that the Park Service was given jurisdiction over for all Americans.” said National Parks Conservation Association Alaska region director Jim Adams.

Adams has more to say, noting that a concurring opinion within the Supreme Court ruling leaves some wiggle room for the NPS to regulate hovercraft use which erodes river banks.

”That’s just one example,’ Adams said. “I imagine any use on the river that washes up on the shore would be something that the Park Service would have a say in.”

As for the man behind the long running dispute, John Sturgeon says the unanimous Supreme Court victory ends his legal battle, and at 74 years old, he plans to retire and do more moose hunting.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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