Federal authority limited on state rivers in national reserves

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon, who has spent a dozen years in a legal battle involving hovercraft, public lands and water rights.

In a decision handed down on March 25, Justice Elena Kagan concluded that Nation River, which runs through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in northeast Alaska is not a “public land” and that the feds do not have title to the river, even if they have certain water rights there- so the rifer cannot be regulated by NPS (National Park Service) as if it were part of the park system.

“Geographic inholdings thus become regulatory outholdings, impervious to the Service’s ordinary authority,” she wrote.

Tim Droske, of Dorsey & Whitney LLP, who helped file an amicus brief in the case, said the decision confirms that “Alaska is different” from the rest of the country, that it is “the exception, not the rule”

The case stems from an incident a dozen years ago when three park rangers ordered Sturgeon off the Nation River on grounds that it was illegal to operate the noisy hovercraft that can navigate in shallow water or even mud.

Droske cautioned that while Sturgeon’s victory was also important to the state and Alaska Native corporations’ ability to act free from federal regulatory interference, ”where exactly that line is to be drawn will need to be the subject of future litigation.”