U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court gives moose hunter another chance in battle over conflicting hovercraft regulations

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The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a federal appeals court decision finding the National Park Service had the authority to ban hovercraft on Alaska’s Nation River.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached a “surprising conclusion” and took a “topsy-turvy approach” in its reading of a federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court said on Tuesday. The unanimous decision (PDF) vacated the ruling and remanded for additional arguments on the authority of the National Park Service.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the opinion for the unanimous court in a declaratory judgment suit filed by an Alaska moose hunter. The case involves a conflict between Alaska law, which allows hovercraft, and National Park Service regulations, which ban their use.

Hunter John Sturgeon filed the suit after National Park Service rangers told him he could not use his hovercraft on the river, which flows through a federally managed conservation area. Sturgeon claimed the Nation River is owned by the state, and the National Park Service can’t enforce its regulations on state-owned land in Alaska as a result of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The Park Service, on the other hand, claimed it has the authority to regulate waters within federally managed preservation areas, and ANILCA didn’t take away its authority.

ANILCA was passed after President Carter designated 56 million acres of federal land in Alaska as national monuments, creating an outcry among Alaskans who feared restrictive federal regulations, Roberts wrote. The law rescinded Carter’s designations, set aside 104 million acres of land for preservation and provided that the Park Service could not prohibit certain activities on the land, including fishing and hunting for sport, and use of vehicles for travel. The law placed both federal preservation land and state land in “conservation system unit.”

At issue is a section of ANILCA governing Park Service authority within the units for public and and nonpublic land, which includes state property.

The 9th Circuit didn’t reach the question of whether the river counts as public land under the law. Instead, the 9th Circuit read the law as allowing the Park Service to enforce its regulations on both public and nonpublic land within Alaska, as long as those regulations applied nationwide.

“That is a surprising conclusion,” given ANILCA’s repeated recognition that “Alaska is different,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the court wasn’t deciding the remainder of the parties’ arguments concerning the Park Service’s authority. “The parties’ arguments in this respect touch on vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other,” he wrote. “We find that in this case those issues should be addressed by the lower courts in the first instance.”

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