The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday informed an Alaska man he “can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose” because the federal government doesn’t own the land under the Nation River, which means its regulations barring hovercraft don’t apply there.
The complaint was brought 12 years ago by John Sturgeon against the U.S. Park Service after its officers threatened him with jail for using his hovercraft to go upriver on an annual moose hunt.
The lower courts, particularly the frequently reversed 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sided with the Park Service. But the Supreme Court reversed the 9th yet again, ruling that the land under the Nation River does not qualify as public land, and the Park Service has no authority to regulate Sturgeon’s travels.
The state of Alaska isn’t like a lot of other states, the opinion explains. For one, the U.S. bought its 365 million acres from Russia in one deal. That means the federal government initially owned all of the state, a position that eventually resulted in the adoption of the Alaska National interest Lands Conservation Act.
The measure set aside 104 million acres for preservation, but instead of designating blocks of land, it established boundary lines along “natural features,” resulting in millions of acres of private and state lands within the perimeters of the federal sections. At statehood, the state was given ownership of about 103 million acres. Later, another act of Congress gave corporations set up by natives rights to about 40 million of the federal acres.
In the fine print, the act included was a provision that federal regulations don’t apply to “inholdings.”
“Petitioner John Sturgeon traveled for decades by hovercraft up a stretch of the Nation River that lies within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve. … On one such trip, park rangers informed him that the service’s rules prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters ‘located within [a park’s] boundaries.'”
Sturgeon followed their orders to leave but later filed a lawsuit challenging their interpretation of the law.
The justices decided the Nation River “is not public land for purposes of ANILCA,” which claims “lands, waters, and interests therein.”
“Because running waters cannot be owned, the United States does not have ‘title’ to the Nation River in the ordinary sense,” the court ruled. “And under the Submerged Lands Act, it is the state of Alaska – not the United States – that holds “title to and ownership of the lands beneath navigable waters.'”
So while the federal government can claim rights to a certain amount of water in the river, it can’t control the land underneath – nor the hovercraft traffic on the surface, the ruling said.
The Pacific Legal Foundation contributed to Sturgeon’s arguments over the years. The case previously had been to the Supreme Court twice.
Reacting to the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in the case, they said, “Happy hunting, Mr. Sturgeon.”
Pacific Legal noted the Park Service prohibits hovercraft within their parks.
“But Sturgeon objected, wisely, that the navigable rivers that pass through National Parks are not actually part of the parks. Under federal law, the state owns the beds of these navigable rivers, and has sovereignty over the water rights to the rivers. Federal land use regulations may apply on federal land, but not to state owned riverbeds or state-controlled rivers. And if the Nation River is not federally regulated ‘public lands,’ then hunters like John Sturgeon are free of Park Service edicts against the use of hovercraft on them.”
WND reported in 2018 when the 9th Circuit, in its most-recently overruled decision, ruled the federal government had virtually unlimited control over the use of water.
Anthony Francois, a senior attorney, warned at the time: “Under this ruling, federal agencies all over the nation can claim reserved water rights at any time, with the explicit purpose of preventing existing water uses in, above or below their facilities, even if those uses have been in place for decades, and even if stopping or reducing them would have severe economic, environmental and other consequences for the federal agency’s neighbors.”
The 9th said the Park Service can ban hovercraft “anywhere in the country because it owns water rights in the rivers flowing through the parks, and those rights give them the authority to regulate the use of the rivers.”
Pacific Legal said the ruling “has wider national implications than hovercraft, which are against federal regulations in national parks anyway. When courts determine that federal agencies own what are called ‘reserved water rights’ for the facilities they manage, they trump any other water rights developed after the facility was created.”
“Since reserved water rights aren’t apparent at the time the federal facility is established, they can upend the settled expectations of others who establish competing water uses without knowing that federal rights later will be claimed and recognized.”
Francois explained: “This creates serious uncertainty for stakeholders upstream or downstream, including landowners, farmers and ranchers, and municipal authorities. Federal reserved water rights can be claimed decades after cities and towns develop drinking water supplies, or farms and ranches establish irrigation rights. Should federal bureaucrats decide to enforce a newly claimed reserved water right against these stakeholders, it could lead to their experiencing shortages, or even going entirely without their water. Not very neighborly of the federal government.”