SCOTUS to Hear Hunter’s Challenge NPS Water Rules

Published January 26, 2016

In a decision that surprised many court watchers and even the lead plaintiff in the case, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided to hear a case concerning whether an elderly Alaskan hunter, John Sturgeon, can use his hovercraft to hunt along Yukon River tributaries within a national preserve.

In 2007, Sturgeon and several friends were on their annual moose-hunting trip, a trip Sturgeon had taken every year since 1971, when his hovercraft broke down. As Sturgeon was on a gravel bar trying to repair the craft, armed National Park Service (NPS) enforcement agents arrived and informed Sturgeon the use of hovercrafts was illegal on waters inside Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

“They actually pulled out a rule book, just like you see in the movies, and they read right from one sentence that hovercrafts are not allowed in parks and preserves,” Sturgeon said in an interview covered in Greenwire. “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I just thought that they were really curious about what the hovercraft was and how it operated.”

Then, Sturgeon said the officials told him if he started the hovercraft again, they would issue him a citation. The agents allowed Sturgeon to tow the hovercraft out of the park with a jet boat and it has been in storage ever since. 

Sturgeon first started using the hovercraft in 1990 because it allowed him and his friends to access much more of the river than possible using his jet boat by allow them to travel over gravel bars, in shallow areas or into more remote areas inaccessible to normal boats during years or periods of low water. 

Rule ‘Not Right’

After considering the situation, Sturgeon concluded the Park Service had wrongly precluded the use of the hovercraft. “This is not right,” Sturgeon said.  “This is state land, and Park Service folks aren’t supposed to be doing this.” Thus began his lawsuit.

Sturgeon sued NPS and the Interior Department in a U.S. District Court in Alaska in 2011, arguing he’d been illegally barred from using his hovercraft on navigable waterways within the Yukon-Charley preserve belonging to the state of Alaska. His attorneys’ arguments NPS rules don’t apply to state waters failed in the district court, and again in 2014 in the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals year, both of which upheld the Park Service’s hovercraft ban. 

The Obama administration’s solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, urged the Supreme Court to reject Sturgeon’s case, noting in his brief, “Every judge to consider petitioner’s claim has correctly rejected it, and petitioner’s claim does not implicate any disagreement among courts of appeals.” 

Supremes Surprising Decision

Sturgeon recognized the chances the Supreme Court would accept his case were small, and, in his own words, was “really surprised” when he heard it had accepted his challenge. “I jumped up. I was very, very happy.” 

Greenwire notes, Sturgeon was not the only one shocked by the Supreme Court’s decision in the light of the relatively small scope of the issue and lower courts’ agreement on dismissal. Richard Lazarus, an environmental law professor at Harvard University, called it the “most unlikely case ever.” Speaking at an environmental law conference in Chicago, he said the “case involves the question of whether Sturgeon can engage in hovercraft moose hunting in national parks in Alaska. … You look at it and think, ‘How in the world was that one of the top 66 cases of legal issues facing the United States?'”.

“But the court granted it nonetheless,” said Lazarus.

The state of Alaska, hunting groups, including Safari Club International, and several Alaska Native Corporations have filed friend of the court briefs with the Supreme Court supporting Sturgeon and arguing NPS’s regulations infringe on Alaska’s rights as established in the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980). Oral arguments are expected to be held in early 2016.

“If I win my court case, I’ll be back there with my hovercraft,” Greenwire reports Sturgeon as saying. “We’ll be looking for moose again.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.