Alaska joined John Sturgeon’s lone wolf quest to hunt moose. On March 22, 2016, as the plaintiff in a suit against the federal government, he was able to have the United States Supreme Court side with him. He was trying to preserve his hunting rights for moose in a way that he thought was completely legal. The case was Sturgeon v. Frost.
Sturgeon hunted moose, as he done for many years. In this particular instance, he was using a hovercraft in order to cross waters on the Nation River in pursuit of his quarry. The government agents of the National Park Service (NPS) saw this, and approached him to advise that the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, in which he was hunting, has a ban on the use of hovercraft. The hunter complied and removed the craft from the waters.
The NPS agents contended that they had this authority. They claimed this right from a federal regulation that bans the operation of hovercraft on NPS lands and waters.
Then Sturgeon’s suit ensued against the National Park Service. The State of Alaska joined the suit. Other notable defendants in this case were Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior; Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and the United States Department of the Interior. The case came to be heard in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska.
The basic thrust of the argument made by the plaintiff caused Alaska to join Sturgeon in his lone quest to hunt for moose. The argument advanced was that while the law that the agents were seeking to enforce may have been otherwise valid, its application was usurped, or pre-empted, by another law. In essence, Alaska joined the suit to protect its sovereignty over its own lands in an issue of federalism.
Sturgeon claimed that the NPS agents’ application of the law was misplaced in the location where agents were seeking to enforce it. In simplest terms, this law was superseded by another, preventing this enforcement. This other law was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
In expanding all systems, this federally approved December 2, 1980 act designated certain public lands in Alaska as units of the National Park, National Wildlife Refuge, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Wilderness Preservation, and National Forest Systems.
Among other things, both Sturgeon and Alaska argued that the NPS service has no authority to implement the hovercraft law on Alaskan lands. It was an issue of federalism; the sovereignty of the State of Alaska and its citizens against the overreach of the federal government.
This first court ruled, on papers and not a trial, that the interpretation argued for by those bringing the lawsuit was incorrect. Having lost on the lowest level, they appealed to the Circuit Court. They lost again and appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court decided to hear the appeal and it was argued in mid-January 2016. In deciding the case, the unanimous Court wrote “We therefore reject the interpretation of Section 103(c) adopted by the court below. That reading of the statute was the sole basis for the disposition of this case by the Court of Appeals.”
The Supreme Court essentially held that the reasoning that both the District Court and the Appeals Court has used to come to their respective decisions was totally incorrect. It then also sent the matter back to the lower court to decide other issues raised about true federalism issues, or in the Court’s words “The parties’ [other] arguments [for which were are sending this case back] in this respect touch on vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other.”
John Sturgeon, who had to remove his hovercraft from the hunting scene because NPS agents asserted that their law controls, now needs to await the outcome of a completely new round of legal wrangling. The interpretive reasoning of the lower courts was faulty and no one yet knows if Alaskan lands are truly sovereign to Alaska, or if Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 rendered the NPS incompetent in this situation.
Although a current win of for Sturgeon, both Alaska and lone wolf are not yet done with their quest for hunting moose, and the issue of federalism is in limbo.
By Bob Reinhard
U.S. Supreme Court Slip Opinion: Sturgeon v. Frost, Alaska Regional Director of the National Park Service, et al.:No. 14–1209. Argued January 20, 2016—Decided March 22, 2016
Sturgeon v. Frost Circuit Court: 768 F.3d 1066
ScotusBlog: Sturgeon v. Frost
36 Code of Federal Regulations § 2.17: Aircraft and air delivery
Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, codified 43 USC 1602-1784; Public Law 96-487: approved December 2, 1980, (94 Stat. 2371)
Lewis & Clark Law School Law Review: Case summaries
Image Courtesy of Zdenek Svoboda’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License