Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon won a major victory over the National Park Service Tuesday in a lawsuit that could have implications far beyond his use of a hovercraft in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
A unanimous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Courtin the Sturgeon case is poised to reopen long simmering disputes over hunting and fishing rights, mining and oil development in federal reserves, road access across Alaska national parks and more, according to lawyers familiar with a case that started with a moose-hunting dispute deep in the state’s wilderness years ago.
It was in a remote corner of the Yukon-Charley preserve north of the tiny and remote community of Eagle that a park service ranger in 2007 decided a little hovercraft that Sturgeon had for years used to power up the Nation River was a park service no-no. The ranger ordered Sturgeon out of the preserve.
Sturgeon fought back in court.
Nine years and $775,000 in legal fees later, he won big in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts who said the park service, a federal district court judge, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals all misinterpreted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
ANILCA, the court decided, dictates Alaska parks and wildlife refuges be managed differently from those Outside. Uniform park rules for all parks should not necessarily apply to Alaska, the decision said.
But the high court didn’t stop with that ruling on what amounts to a technicality over wording in ANILCA.
Oh no, it opened a whole new can of tuna when it bounced the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with the dictate it address “vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other.”
“It’s pretty significant,” Sturgeon said by phone Tuesday. “(But) we’re not out of the woods yet.”
He was planning to meet with his attorney later this week to decide what to do next. Noting the controversial confrontations between Westerners and the federal government elsewhere — the latest of which ended in a deadly shoot out in Oregon — Sturgeon said, he feels good when people talk to him about “taking on government in the right way,” but the costs are punitive.
The state of Alaska has backed Sturgeon’s case in court and in the arena of public opinion, but “they haven’t contributed a penny to this thing,” he said. “That’s discouraging. The bottom line is that does cost a fortune.”
At a hastily called press conference Tuesday morning, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and state lawmakers praised Sturgeon with Walker proclaiming “this is a John Sturgeon day.”
But everyone danced around the issue of legal costs. When queried directly by a reporter, Walker said, “we’ve covered our own costs,” but then dodged away from the far bigger expenses Sturgeon has carried as the main player in the lawsuit.
Walker said he would encourage more private contributions to the Sturgeon legal defense fund and even offered to add his name to the cause to help increase contributions. But there was no offering of state funding even though Walker agreed the case going forward is “a big deal.
“It sets the stage for other issues,” Walker said.
A whole bunch of them– including such things as mining or oil drilling on state or Native corporation lands within the boundaries of federal reserves, subsistence fishing on rivers, access to minerals such as gold lodged in the beds of navigable creeks and streams, and pre-Statehood provisions for road corridors across what are now parks and refuges — could come into play.
Recognizing those other issues, Sturgeon Fed-Exed the Alaska attorney general copies of $755,000 in legal invoices and a plea for state help two weeks ago. He never heard a word back, he said.
The issues raised in the suit are politically difficult for some in a state with a variety of sovereignty issues.The federal government still owns most of the land in Alaska, but both the state and 12 regional Native corporations control massive acreages.
About 104 million acres, an area the size of Colorado, is in state hands with another 44 million acres, an area about the size of Ohio, in the hands of the Native corporations. The Native lands are considered private and like other private lands fall under state regulatory control if they are developed.
Sovereignty issues in the 49th state, however, are not as simple as who owns the land. Alaska Native tribes, which own no land and are separate entities from the Native corporations, have long fought to maintain federal oversight of hunting, fishing and development activities on both federal and states lands.
The tribes won a major victory in 1996 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government had the authority to regulate fishing in both state and federal waters. A request from the state that the Supreme Court review that decision — the so-called Katie John case — was denied in 2014.
At that time, the state argued Katie John “involves fundamental questions of control and authority over navigable waters in the state.” Those fundamental questions remain unanswered. How broadly the Ninth Circuit will address them remains to be seen, but two attorneys intimately familiar with the Sturgeon case said the Supreme Court decision made it clear the courts wants the sovereignty issues revisited.
Senate Resources Committee chairman Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said the state simply can’t afford to ignore those issues. A contributor to the Sturgeon defense fund, she admitted a Legislature already under fire for cutting funding for seniors and education in the wake of a more than $3.5 billion budget deficit is likely to be reluctant to open the state checkbook to finance a fight against the feds if it can find private parties willing to foot the cost.
But if it comes down to a hard choice between paying the bill, and Sturgeon giving up because he’s out of money, she admitted the state almost has to buy in.
“In a sense,” she said, “it’s up to John.”