Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Alaska Land-Use Case

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By Rebecca Wilhelm

Jan. 19 — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Jan. 20 in a lawsuit involving land-use issues unique to Alaska, but the case also raises general questions of statutory interpretation and federal land policy that could have broader implications, attorneys told Bloomberg BNA.

The case, Sturgeon v. Frost, asks the court to decide whether Section 103(c) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) prohibits the National Park Service from exercising regulatory control over Alaska land that is located within the physical boundaries of the National Park System but belongs to the state, private parties or native corporations (191 DEN A-14, 10/2/15).

Specifically, Alaska resident John Sturgeon argues that a Park Service regulation banning the use of hovercraft in all national parks doesn't apply to nonfederal land.

“In a lot of ways, this is a case unique to Alaska,” Ethan W. Blevins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in support of Sturgeon, told Bloomberg BNA. “But I do think there are bigger questions as to what extent courts should defer to agency interpretations.”

While this case “is pretty unique to Alaska,” Todd Henderson, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, told Bloomberg BNA, “there are some undercurrents here of federal land policies in the West generally. This raises the question of what the federal government's powers are on private land.”

Challenge to Hovercraft Ban

The dispute arose when park officials informed Sturgeon that he couldn't operate his hovercraft on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Sturgeon's hovercraft had broken down during his annual moose-hunting trip when park officials approached him. He argued that the river is not under federal control and not subject to National Park Service (NPS) regulation, but the officials insisted he could face criminal sanctions if he continued his trip through the national preserve.

Sturgeon challenged the regulation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, which deferred to the Park Service's interpretation of its regulatory authority under ANILCA and held that the hovercraft ban applies to nonfederal land (Sturgeon v. Masica, 2013 BL 300991, D. Alaska, No. 3:11-cv-0183-HRH, 10/30/13).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, ruling that ANILCA only exempts nonfederal land from Alaska-specific NPS regulations and not from nationwide rules (Sturgeon v. Masica, 768 F.3d 1066, 2014 BL 278223 (9th Cir. 2014)).

Deference to Agency Interpretations

Sturgeon argued in his petition for certiorari that the plain language of ANILCA exempts nonfederal land from regulations solely applicable to public lands. The hovercraft ban, he wrote, applies to national parks generally but not to private, native and state-owned Alaska land.

He also argued that ANILCA doesn’t give NPS jurisdiction over navigable waters on nonfederal land, because such waters are not public lands within the meaning of ANILCA. However, the government argued in its response brief that navigable waters are public lands subject to federal regulatory control.

ANILCA is not an ambiguous statute, Henderson said. The Park Service interpretation of its regulatory authority likely won't survive Supreme Court scrutiny.

The administrative law question is probably “one of the reasons the Supreme Court took up the case,” Blevins said.

“It's going to be a really interesting case in a lot of ways, very complicated because of things specific to Alaska,” he said. “But I do think we'll see language in the court's decision that will apply more broadly to how we approach administrative law.”

Economic, Political Ramifications

This case raises a lot of issues important to Alaskans, Blevins said.

Alaska contains more than 150 million acres of federally managed national parks, preserves and monuments.

“Because so much of the state is covered by those kinds of federal regions, whether or not the areas are subject to federal regulation is essential to the state's ability to develop economically,” Blevins said. It also affects native tribes dependent upon subsistence living.

The federal government has a complicated relationship with Alaska, Henderson said.

In 1980 Congress passed ANILCA, which was designed to resolve land title disputes between the state and native corporations. The statute also created conservation system units, establishing new national parks and bringing lands reserved for Alaska, private parties and native corporations under federal management.

“Congress has taken a lot of time and effort to try to please everyone,” Henderson said. “If you give NPS broad authority it could really upset this bargain.”

‘Reasoning Is Completely Unjustifiable.'

Henderson said that he would be surprised if the court didn't reverse the Ninth Circuit.

“The Ninth Circuit's reasoning is completely unjustifiable under the statute,” he said. It “doesn't make any sense” to hold that ANILCA only exempts Alaska from state-specific NPS regulations.

The Ninth Circuit's decision “is utterly illogical” because it denies “the benefit of Alaska-specific NPS regulations that relax nationwide restrictions on hunting, camping, and motorized access,” Sturgeon argued in his cert. petition. The court “impose[d] a more restrictive regulatory regime” on nonfederal land than Congress intended.

“The conservatives on the court generally think the Ninth Circuit is somewhere between crazy and not very good at their jobs, and this opinion as I read it definitely falls into that category,” Henderson said. “The Ninth Circuit's reasoning cannot be right.”

Blevins agreed. “The Ninth Circuit got it wrong. It fails to look at the broader context of what ANILCA was trying to accomplish. It takes a magnifying glass and hones in on that specific language and fails to look at the bigger picture.”

‘Psychological Victory.'

Moreover, the conservative members of the Supreme Court are generally “hostile” to federal land policies in the Western U.S., Henderson said.

While “I don't think it's going to have a broad effect on land management policies,” he said, a decision against NPS would be a “psychological victory for ranchers and people in the West.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Wilhelm in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

For More Information 
Sturgeon's petition for certiorari can be found at
The federal government's response brief can be found at
The Pacific Legal Foundation's amicus brief can be found at