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Winning, but still losing

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John Sturgeon’s hovercraft on the Nation River/photo courtesy John Sturgeon

Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon took on the National Park Service in federal court over access to the Nation River and won.

His winnings should be enough to buy a decent backpack. Not a top-of-line backpack, he joked Wednesday, but at least a backpack.

Such is the court-ordered payback on a legal battle that took Sturgeon almost nine years and cost, at last estimate, $755,000. Begun in federal court in Alaska, the Sturgeon case ended up going all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the nation’s capital.

In a unanimous ruling there, the justices of the high court held that the Park Service overstepped its authority in booting Sturgeon’s small hovercraft off a state-owned waterway running through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker proclaimed “a John Sturgeon day” after the decision was handed down and heralded the case as a “big deal.”

“It sets the stage for other issues,” Walker said.

That it could. The Supremes sent the case back to the Court of Appeals with an admonishment to address “vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other.”

Sturgeon’s total, exact payback for footing the costs to set the stage for what could be a historic argument over Alaska’s rights under the Statehood Act  versus the federal government’s authority under the Alaska National Interest Lands Act?

Three hundred dollars. Yes, $300.

The Office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court  in a Monday letter notified the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the Sturgeon case was being sent back for further review, and “ordered that the petitioner John Sturgeon recover from Bert Frost, in his official capacity as Alaska Regional Director of the National Park Service, et al. three hundred dollars ($300.00) for costs herein expended.”

The now 75-year-old moose hunter didn’t quite know how to react upon receiving a copy of the letter. By the time the Supreme Court recommendation on the payment was written and all the letters were sent to the various parties that had to be notified, he figures it probably cost the government far more than the $300 to notify him that the check was in the mail.

“I guess it has great symbolic significance,” he said. “I don’t plan on cashing it. I think I’ll have it framed and mounted.

“Only in America.”

Even if Sturgeon were to cash the check, it would barely put a dent in the expected costs of the lawsuit going forward. The state is all in for a sovereignty debate, but doesn’t want to pay the cost. The governor did volunteer to add his name to Sturgeon’s fund-raising efforts which have to date brought in about $605,000, but are running out of steam.

Sturgeon praised organizations like the Alaska Outdoor Council that jumped in early to help out, but said just about all concerned interest groups have now emptied their piggy banks. Sturgeon is down to fundraisers staged at people’s home that might take in $5,000 on a good night.

“It’ a lot of money,” he said, but not so much when you’re trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue the case in the federal courts.

“It’s getting more difficult,” he added. “Fame fades fast…that’s kind of what happens,” and Alaska’s economic slump hasn’t helped.

Sturgeon met with the Alaska Commissioners of Fish and Game and Natural Resources to ask for state assistance. Both were hugely enthusiastic about the continuing the suit, he said, but offered no money. The governor, meanwhile, is now too busy fighting with the Legislature over the budget and an income tax to have time for a meeting.

Sturgeon hopes for a sit down after the session.

“It’s kind of hopeless now,” he said, “but I’ll get it done somehow. Forget about the money part, and think about the public policy. It’s really not fair to put this kind of responsibility on one guy’s back.”

A few people have suggested Sturgeon should give it up,  go to the Park Service, negotiate a deal to get his hovercraft grandfathered for use on the Nation River until his death, settle the case, and kick back to enjoy his last years of hunting in what was once a near-private hunting preserve.

High water made the Nation navigable by standard riverboats last fall and the attention it has attracted because of the legal fight brought in more hunters. Sturgeon pretty much considered his little retreat ruined. But the high water is an oddity. If things were to go back to normal, and if Sturgeon was alone with grandfather rights on the best technology with which to access the river, he might see the return of an almost-private hunting preserve.

That alone would be enough to make a settlement a tempting thought for most Alaska moose hunters, but then Sturgeon is not most Alaska moose hunters.

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