US Supreme Court Decides Not to Decide in Sturgeon Hovercraft Case

Issues Remanded for Ninth Circuit’s Reconsideration

Mar 23, 2016
Lisa Oakley
The Sturgeon hovercraft case began on the Charley River is a complete watershed protected within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. It is virtually unaltered by modern human activities. NPS Photo by Josh Spice.

The Charley River is a complete watershed protected within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. It is virtually unaltered by modern human activities. NPS Photo by Josh Spice.

On March 22, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in Sturgeon v. Frost. The lawsuit challenged the National Park Service’s authority to manage rivers within Alaska’s national parks. The case comes after park rangers discovered John Sturgeon and his hovercraft on the Nation River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The rangers warned Mr. Sturgeon that hovercraft are banned within National Parks. Mr. Sturgeon sued the Park Service to contest the ban.

The Park Service banned hovercraft from all national parks because they are more destructive than other boats. They can go places beyond where traditional motorboats can go, such as onto tundra and wetlands. Hovercraft are also noisy and unreliable.

The question Mr. Sturgeon’s case raises is whether the National Park Service can regulate the use of navigable waters inside of Alaska’s national parks. Mr. Sturgeon argues that only the State of Alaska can regulate rivers, even within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. This position was rejected by both the U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit. Both the trial court and the appeals court sided with the Park Service, recognizing the Park Service’s ability to regulate activities such as boating to make sure that park resources are protected.

The Supreme Court decision did not rule in favor of Mr. Sturgeon. It did not conclude that only the State of Alaska can manage rivers. It did not allow the use of hovercraft in National Preserves in Alaska. The Court simply overturned the underlying reasoning of one sentence in the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and returned the case to the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court offered no further guidance on the other issues raised in the case. The case now goes back to the panel of three judges from the Ninth Circuit. In the meantime, the Park Service continues to protect rivers within the national parks in Alaska.

Trustees represented thirteen conservation groups in the case as amici, or “friends of the court,” on the side of the National Park Service. We urged the Supreme Court to interpret the law so that navigable waters that were included as part of preserves and other conservation units created by ANILCA are protected as Congress intended. That question will now have to be answered by the Ninth Circuit. The groups represented by Trustees included national organizations and local, all-volunteer groups.

The ultimate outcome of this case will significantly affect the Park Service’s ability to protect Alaska’s national parks, and the fish and wildlife that rely on them.

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