Supreme Court victory for Alaska

The Supreme Court yesterday rescued Alaska from a crippling threat to the state’s sovereignty and economy. With a unanimous opinion in Sturgeon v. Frost, the Court reversed a Ninth Circuit opinion that had handed much of Alaska’s land and water over to the control of the National Park Service and similar federal agencies. But this is only one battle in a longer war.

The trip to the Supreme Court began with John Sturgeon’s moose-hunting escapades in the Alaskan wilderness. One fall day, Sturgeon had set out along the Nation River in his hovercraft to go hunting. National Park Service officers cut his trip short, however, when he stopped to make a repair. They told Sturgeon that National Park regulations prohibited the use of hovercrafts in parks. Sturgeon protested that the Nation River, though it ran through park land, was actually part of Alaska state land. He believed that National Park regulations did not extend to any state or private land within park boundaries. He carried that belief to the Supreme Court of the United States. And yesterday he won. Sort of.

The issue raised by Sturgeon is about much more than hovercrafts and moose hunters. It’s about Alaskans’ rights to develop and use huge portions of the state’s land and water.

A California-sized chunk of Alaska sits within federal “conservation system units.” These are national parks, federal wildlife preserves, and so on. Such units are subject to a variety of special federal regulations that limit use of the land for development, subsistence, travel, and recreation. But a lot of state and private land is trapped within these conservation system units’ boundaries, like bubbles encased in amber. Sturgeon v. Frost addresses the fate of all of these non-federal lands.

Congress has recognized the unique problems of balancing federal and state control in Alaska. To address that issue, Congress passed the Alaska National Lands Conservation Act, called ANILCA. ANILCA says that non-federal land and water within conservation system units are not subject to federal regulations applicable “solely” to “public lands” inside the conservation system unit. ANILCA then defined “public lands” as land and water in which the federal government holds title. In other words, ANILCA frees private and state land entombed within conservation system units from the unique regulatory burdens imposed on these units.

The Ninth Circuit below adopted a contorted interpretation of this language. The Ninth Circuit said “solely applicable to public lands within such units” meant that nationwide regulations still applied to state and private land inside parks. After all, the Ninth Circuit reasoned, nationwide regulations, because they apply outside Alaska, are not “solely applicable” to the Alaskan conservation system units.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion,the Court said, zeroed in on this single phrase without considering the broader context of ANILCA. After all, ANILCA and other federal laws are designed to accommodate Alaska’s unique circumstances. It would seem odd, then, to read ANILCA as subjecting state and private land to nationwide regulations while exempting such lands from Alaska-specific regulation. The Supreme Court adopted a more reasonable reading of the “solely applicable” language. It said this phrase just clarified that non-federal enclaves enjoyed an exemption from conservation system unit regulations, but general federal laws applicable across the United States, such as the Clean Water Act, or the Endangered Species Act, would still apply.

But the war is not over. The Court did not address an alternative excuse offered by the National Park Service for imposing regulation on state-owned waters within the parks. They argued that navigable waters running through parks are “public lands” that they could regulate under ANILCA, regardless of who owned the submerged land beneath the water. The Court sent this question back for the Ninth Circuit to resolve. Regardless of how the Ninth Circuit rules on that issue, the Supreme Court’s ruling still saved vast stretches of Alaska land from regulatory burdens. We can hope the Ninth Circuit follows suit.

To read our amicus brief in Sturgeon, go here.