Court backs hovercraft ban in Alaska’s national preserves

ANCHORAGE — The National Park Service can ban hovercraft operating on Alaska rivers that flow through national preserves, a federal Appeals Court ruled Monday, in a case that has implications for who will manage state waterways.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded said the Park Service has regulatory authority over a river in a preserve even as Alaska since statehood has owned the riverbed.

“On remand from the Supreme Court, we again conclude that the federal government properly exercised it authority to regulate hovercraft use on the rivers within conservation system units in Alaska,” the judges wrote.

The ruling came in the case brought by John Sturgeon of Anchorage, a moose hunter banned by the Park Service from operating his hovercraft on the Nation River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in eastern Alaska. Sturgeon had used hovercraft since 1990, but on a 2007 trip, was told by three rangers that it was illegal to operate the noisy, blower-powered craft that can navigate shallow water or even mud. Hovercraft already had been banned by the Park Service in other states.

Sturgeon’s 2011 lawsuit cited the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, which created Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and made rules that didn’t apply in smaller states.

Sturgeon lost at the District and Appeals court levels but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 said the law carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preserves, such as snowmobile and airplane travel between villages. Justices sent the case back to determine whether the Park Service had authority to regulate hovercraft.

Appeals Court judges in the ruling Monday said that when the federal government withdraws land from the public domain and reserves it for a federal purpose, the government reserves water rights needed to accomplish the purpose, as it does in reserving water for farming on Indian reservations.

The judges noted that the Yukon-Charlie preserve was to be managed to maintain the environmental integrity of the Charlie River basin and a hovercraft ban was consistent with congressional intent.

Sturgeon said Monday the new decision was not a surprise. The hovercraft aspect of the lawsuit got lost a long time ago, he said. The issue, he said, is who will make management decisions such as what kinds of boats are allowed.

He has not decided whether to appeal but, “It’s not over yet,” Sturgeon said.

Members of the Alaska state Senate majority called the decision disappointing.

“The plain language of the law was acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court and, yet again, ignored by the 9th Circuit,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, in a statement.

Jim Adams, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, applauded the decision and said the Park Service must have a say in what people can do on rivers and lakes within park boundaries.