State urges halt of federal regulation of state waterways

In an amicus brief filed on Aug. 14 the state of Alaska contends that the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold state management of Alaska’s navigable waterways and overturn the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Sturgeon v. Frost.

This is the second time the case centered on John Sturgeon’s use of a hovercraft on a 2007 hunting trip on the Nation River within Yukon-Charley National Preserve has been taken up by the nation’s highest court. The last time the court agreed with Sturgeon and the state on state management of state navigable waterways.

Sturgon had to traverse a portion of the Nation River through Yukon-Charley and bought a small hovercraft to navigate in shallow waters during the hunting season. While he was repairing a steering cable on a gravel bar he was approached by National Park Service rangers who told him it was illegal to operate the hovercraft on that river within the boundaries of Yukon-Charley.

The case was remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court, which rejected Sturgeon and the state’s arguments that because Congress intended for the Alaska National Interest Lands Act to provide Alaska “adequate opportunity to provide for the economic and social needs of Alaska,” the National Park Service does not have broad authority to regulate state navigable rivers.

The Ninth Circuit, according to Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, relied on the federal reserved water rights doctrine, previously used in the Katie John cases to give meaning to the rural subsistence priority for fishing in ANILCA, and greatly expended it to cover all regulation by the National Park Service of state navigable waterways through federal parklands.

The case is to be heard this fall and a decision is expected by June 2019.