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Alaska controls rivers running through federal conservation lands, U.S. Supreme Court rules

Mar 27, 2019

John Sturgeon and U.S. Rep. Don Young arrive at a 2018 summer fundraiser in Fairbanks by hovercraft. (Photo by Dan Bross/KUAC)

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state controls rivers running through Alaska’s federal conservation lands.  It’s the 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 regulation by National Park Service.

On the most basic level, the Supreme Court ruling means 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 and turned the key on and by golly it worked," Sturgeon said. "I’m all ready to go."

Sturgeon rebuilt the small hovercraft over the winter in hope that the Supreme Court justices would rule in his favor that Alaska rivers are not subject to park service regulation. He spent over a 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, these are like I-5 in Oregon, Washington and California," he said. "If people want to go to their fish camps or they want to go moose hunting they use these rivers just like highways and the idea was 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.

Alaska Federation of Native president Julie Kitka says AFN is pleased with the ruling. "Both the states inholdings and Native inholdings was upheld."

The ruling 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 courts wish to keep those intact.”

The National Park Service issued a two-line response to the ruling. NPS Alaska region spokeswoman Meghan Richotte read the statement.

“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.”

National Parks Conservation Association Alaska region director Jim Adams had more to say.

“It’s important to us that the National Parks Service is in a position to protect the resources that the park service was given jurisdiction in under ANILCA for all Americans.”

Adams noted 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, I imagine any use in the river that washes up on the shore would be something the Park service would have a say in,” he said.

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.