Federal overreach furor flows through Alaska river dispute

Supreme Court
by Mary Reichard
Posted 2/22/16, 02:15 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard a dispute over federal land, similar to the one in Oregon that culminated in a 40-day standoff earlier this year. The case touches on the anger over federal ownership of land in the American West, and a ruling against the government could strike a symbolic blow against federal agencies many say are increasingly overstepping the bounds of their constitutional authority. 

The federal government owns more than 60 percent of the land in Alaska. In contrast, the federal government owns just 4 percent of all the land east of the Mississippi River. 

Government land ownership presents a big concern for Alaskans, where almost 1 in 5 residents lives off the land in what’s called a “subsistence lifestyle.” So handing over control to a government 4,000 miles away isn’t popular.

At the center of the dispute is 70-year-old John Sturgeon of Anchorage. He’s hunted moose for more than four decades in an area called the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, bordering Canada’s Yukon Territory. Sturgeon’s hovercraft skims the shallow depths of the remote Nation River, a tributary of the 2,000-mile Yukon River.

In 2007, Sturgeon pulled his hovercraft onto to the gravel banks of the Nation River so he could repair it after it broke down. But National Park Service rangers approached and warned him he’d face criminal sanctions if he didn’t immediately remove the hovercraft.

Sturgeon confessed he didn’t know it was illegal and agreed to move on. But the rangers said they’d ticket him if he even started the engine. Sturgeon asked how was he supposed to move along without his watercraft. According to court testimony, one ranger replied, “Well, that’s your problem.”

Since then, frontier lovers—Alaskans who revere the great outdoors—and limited-government advocates have taken up Sturgeon’s cause. People Sturgeon has never met are paying his legal bills. 

His attorney, Matthew Findlay, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the federal government did not have jurisdiction over the river where rangers stopped Sturgeon in 2007. The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act allowed the state to keep control of its waterways, even those running through national parks. Though courts have interpreted the law in different ways, a lawyer for the state said the spirit of the law requires local control over Alaska’s rivers. Because of the close-to-the-land lifestyles of many Alaskans, to them the rivers are like roads. To get home, you have to go by boat.

“The rivers are an important part of the park, but control over the rivers is Alaska’s by sovereign right. And the clear statement cases of the court make clear that Congress does not lightly or vaguely take that power away from a state,” attorney Ruth Botstein said.

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