Ninth Circuit upholds NPS authority over waterways

Sturgeon decision aligns with centuries of law

Oct 02, 2017

 

The Ninth Circuit Court ruled today to uphold the National Park Service’s authority to manage boating activities on navigable rivers within park boundaries in Alaska.

Trustees represented thirteen conservation groups in the case, Sturgeon v. Frost, by filing an amicus brief supporting NPS efforts to enforce safety and other park regulations on waters within the park boundaries. Read the Court’s full opinion here.

Decision aligns with centuries of law

The Charley River. NPS Photo.

In its opinion, the Court wrote, “…we again conclude that the federal government properly exercised its authority to regulate hovercraft use on the rivers within conservation system units in Alaska.”

Trustees for Alaska attorney Katie Strong said, “Today’s decision aligns with centuries of law supporting federal authority over navigable waters and other public lands. The decision reaffirms the NPS has authority to manage navigable waters in Alaska’s national parks—specifically those meant to preserve wild rivers—because that’s what Congress intended.”

Sturgeon case goes back to 2011

NPS banned hovercraft from national parks and preserves many years ago to protect parks. Hovercraft can do more damage to parks because they travel on very shallow wetlands and tundra, not just rivers. They are also significantly louder than motorboats.

In 2011, NPS rangers found John Sturgeon with his hovercraft in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve and let him know about the ban. Sturgeon sued NPS, challenging the long-standing prohibition.

Today’s decision upholds lower court decisions

Both the U.S. District and Ninth Circuit courts previously upheld NPS authority to manage boating activities in national parks. Sturgeon appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in October 2016.

Later that year, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Ninth District, rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning, and directing the Ninth District to review the case again.

Today’s Ninth Circuit ruling correctly substantiates why its original decision upholding NPS’s authority is the right one. All three Ninth Court judges agreed that the rivers in Alaska’s national parks are “public lands” and therefore subject to NPS regulations.

The ruling today means that NPS and other federal agencies can continue to protect navigable waterways within Alaska’s conservation system units—including national parks, preserves, refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and monuments—as Congress intended through the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

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