NPS authority to manage navigable rivers upheld

Sturgeon case stems from 2007 hovercraft incident in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve

Judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have upheld the right of the National Park Service to manage boating activities on navigable rivers within park boundaries in Alaska.

In a ruling handed down on Oct. 2, the judges said that they “again conclude that the federal government properly exercised its authority to regulate hovercraft use on the rivers within conservation system units in Alaska.”

The ruling came in the case Sturgeon v. Frost, in which the Anchorage based nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska, represented 13 conservation groups, filed an amicus brief supporting Park Service efforts to enforce safety and other park regulations on waters within park boundaries.

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

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, slammed the decision as “a hard punch in the gut.”

Murkowski noted that 18 months ago the U.S. Supreme Court rejected what it called the Ninth Circuit’s “topsy-turvy approach” to the Sturgeon case, sending it back for further proceedings.

“This is an affront to all Alaskans, and yet another example of a court that is deeply out of touch with both the law and the people,” she said. “This decision cannot be allowed to stand.”

The Park Service regulates rivers and lakes within national parks nationwide.

The case stems from a September 2007 incident in which Alaska hunter John Sturgeon decided to stop on a gravel bar in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve to fix a steering cable on a hovercraft he was using to hunt moose. Use of hovercraft there is barred by Park Service regulations, but Sturgeon argued that a provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act stripped the Park Service of power to regulate navigable waters within national parks in Alaska.

The Ninth Circuit originally upheld Park Service authority in this case in 2014. Then the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit in 2016. The new ruling clarifies the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning, noting that under multiple legal theories the Park Service has authority to regulate waters within Alaska’s national parks.

Conservation organizations represented by Trustees in the amicus brief include National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Wilderness Watch, Denali Citizens Council, Copper Country Alliance, Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, and Alaska Wilderness League.