U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Alaska Moose Hunter in Land Management Case
March 22, 2016
While not a decisive victory for John Sturgeon, the Alaska moose hunter who brought the case forward, and who will now have to continue fighting his case in court, it does represent a significant win for Alaska’s sovereignty. The vacated 9th Circuit ruling has been used, and would have continued to be used, by the federal government as a springboard for extensive federal regulation which would have harmed hunters and stymied development on state and Native Corporation lands.
At issue in the case is who, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA), controls state and Native property located within the outer boundaries of ANILCA Conservation System Units. In November, Senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young submitted an amicus curiae brief, arguing that only the State of Alaska and Alaska Native Corporations, and not the federal government, are empowered to make land use decisions on non-federal land in Alaska.
The court did not resolve the question of whether the Park Service could regulate vessel traffic on the Nation River, or if it could regulate other state and Native Corporation lands in Alaska. However, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, found that the 9th Circuit’s decision didn’t take into account that ANILCA envisioned that public lands in Alaska would not be managed like other public lands across the country.
In the Court’s own words, “ANILCA repeatedly recognizes that Alaska is different” and ANILCA’s “Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule” when it comes to the Park Service’s general land management authority.
“John Sturgeon is a hero for taking his challenge all the way to the Supreme Court and winning this initial, and unanimous, victory over a tortured legal interpretation by the National Park Service,” said U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). “Unfortunately, this decision is not the last step, but only the start of the next chapter in our fight to secure the rights promised to Alaskans. We must continue to rally behind John, and support his cause, until lower courts also recognize what the Supreme Court affirmed today: that Alaska is different, even exceptional, and that federal overreach is unacceptable.”
“I am gratified that the Supreme Court unanimously recognized unique nature of Alaska and that the 9th Circuit’s decision was fundamentally flawed,” said U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK). “In Alaska, our land and our waters are our lifeblood. The more the federal government takes, the less control we have over our economic destiny. The people of Alaska know this. John Sturgeon knows this. As evidenced by the opinion, members of the Supreme Court seem to understand this. However, I am disappointed that John Sturgeon didn’t get the decisive victory that he deserved. We all need to continue to work together on these important issues, including continued vigilance when Federal agencies ignore ANILCA.”
“Today’s ruling wasn’t the KO punch we were looking for in our fight against the massive overreach of the National Park Service, but it was a small victory for Alaska and the unique relationship we share with the federal government,” said Congressman Don Young (R-AK). “From the beginning, a unified front has argued that the National Park Service has overstepped its boundaries through a wholesale neglect of ANILCA and many provisions that protect Alaska’s sovereignty. While the Supreme Court stopped short of reaching a conclusion today, they went to great lengths to describe the uniqueness of Alaska and the historical context to the many instances in ANILCA that prescribe exceptions to the status quo federal management – recognizing ‘the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule.’ I hope the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation’s leading activist court, takes the Supreme Court’s condemnation of their legal interpretation seriously as they reconsider this extremely critical case.”
Members of the Alaska Legislature also praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to overturn a Ninth Circuit ruling that allowed a National Park Service hovercraft ban on an Alaskan river. The court’s decision recognized that Alaska is meant to be treated differently from lands in the rest of the country, per the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The court case, Sturgeon v. Frost, is a positive step toward state control of land management in Alaska.
In response to the decision, legislators released the following statements:
“Congratulations to John Sturgeon for his courage and fortitude to take this case to the highest court in our nation,” said Sen. Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage), Chair of the Senate Resources Committee. “The news today proves that efforts such as his are not academic exercises; they are vital to the everyday freedoms that Americans, and Alaskans, are entitled to have. I must also thank Mathew Findley, John’s Anchorage-based attorney, who argued a unanimous decision from such a diverse Supreme Court. Bravo.”
“Congratulations to John Sturgeon,” said Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy), Co-Chair of the House Resources Committee for state land issues. “The odds are long when you take on the federal government, and he had to wait the better part of a decade for some semblance of justice. How quintessentially Alaskan for this case to involve a man simply trying to get out in rural Alaska and hunt a moose, only to be intercepted by heavy-handed federal agents. Though I wish the Court had decided on all the matters in the case, I’m glad John Sturgeon heightened awareness to this tremendous issue amongst the Western States.”
“Upon initial review, I’m cautiously pleased that there was an acknowledgment that Alaska lands are treated differently,” said Sen. John Coghill (R-North Pole), Vice-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of ANILCA was inconsistent with both the text and the context of the law.”
“This is a good day for Alaska,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, (R-Anchorage), Chair of the House Rules Committee and member of the House Resources Committee. “Federal overreach threatens Alaska’s ability to control our own destiny and this decision is a big first step in the right direction. We have to be vigilant in fighting for our rights. Having the Supreme Court side with us on even this narrow issue is a big deal.”
Senator Bill Wielechowski (D) also commented saying, “I am pleased by the common sense, unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Sturgeon v. Frost case. As the Court noted, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) ‘carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preservation areas."
To follow-up on Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that unanimously favored Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon in the case Sturgeon v. Frost, the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee will host a hearing next week regarding the specifics of the ruling and the legal path forward.
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Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews
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