What others say: Alaskans should hope Supreme Court sides with John Sturgeon

  • Friday, June 29, 2018 9:08am
  • Opinion

The case of John Sturgeon v. the National Park Service is returning to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that’s exceptionally good news.

However the high court ultimately rules, this case is in need of resolution.

It is hoped, of course, that Mr. Sturgeon prevails and that the justices cement the ability of Alaskans to travel freely on navigable waterways that pass through federal conservation areas. That’s the central issue here.

The case has national significance, as Mr. Sturgeon’s court filing states, which perhaps is one reason the Supreme Court agreed to again take the case.

Here is the issue presented to the court:

“Whether the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act prohibits the National Park Service from exercising regulatory control over State, Native Corporation and private land physically located within the boundaries of the National Park System in Alaska.”

And here is how Mr. Sturgeon and his team argue, strongly, how the action of the National Park Service in this case — and the favorable ruling the agency received in this matter from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — harms not only Alaska but also potentially many other Western states.

“By holding that the United States has a title interest in all Alaska waterways located within federal Conservation System Units (CSUs), the 9th Circuit has placed a significant percentage of Alaska’s vast navigable waters in federal receivership. NPS now has nearly limitless power over these nonfederal waters. And, because reserved water rights apply to all waters appurtenant to federal land, waters far outside CSUs could now be transformed into public lands too. …

“If the 9th Circuit’s ruling stands, the United States may claim it has reserved water rights in any standing water, wetland, or groundwater throughout the West, converting them into public lands subject to plenary federal control, all without paying compensation. This is an urgent issue of state sovereignty.”

It most certainly is an urgent matter of state sovereignty.

The Supreme Court gave Mr. Sturgeon a partial victory in March 2016, when it ruled unanimously that the 9th Circuit made a convoluted interpretation of the Act when it ruled against Mr. Sturgeon and the use of his hovercraft on the Nation River in Interior Alaska. The 9th Circuit judges ruled that the Park Service’s nationwide prohibition on the use of hovercraft in its conservation units applied to Alaska despite provisions contained in the Act.

The high court, however, didn’t rule on the central question of whom has authority. It sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration, which eventually resulted in the same unfavorable outcome for Mr. Sturgeon.

So now the case is back in front of the Supreme Court for what we hope is a clear and final determination that it is the state, and not the federal government, that has management authority over waters in the 104 million aces in Alaska that Congress set aside for preservation in 1980 when it approved the Act.

This is an important case of states’ rights and limiting federal authority. Mr. Sturgeon, whose case is supported by the state of Alaska, deserves all the support he can get.

—Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 23, 2018

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