Alaskan moose hunter wins victory at Supreme Court, but not the war

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court delivered a unanimous victory to an Alaskan moose hunter last week, but did not settle whether he will be able to use a hovercraft to travel through federal lands to his favorite hunting grounds.

The court overturned a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that had gone against Anchorage businessman John Sturgeon. The panel’s ruling was “plausible in the abstract,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court, but “ultimately inconsistent with both the text and context” of the law.

Because the court had gone down the wrong road in its analysis, it did not consider the most important questions, he said. The justices sent back the case so that lower courts could decide “vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other.”

In other words, Sturgeon is back to where he was in 2007, when federal officers approached him as he was working on his hovercraft on a gravel bar of the Nation River, within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Sturgeon for years had used his hovercraft to traverse the shallow rivers to his favorite hunting spot near the Canadian border. But on this day, the officers told him that hovercraft were not allowed in the preserve — they are banned in all federal parks — and that he’d have to find another way home.

He did, and then he sued.

Sturgeon has become something of a Last Frontier hero for the lawsuit, with groups and individuals holding fundraisers to help pay his legal bills. The Alaska congressional delegation filed an amicus brief on his behalf.

“He is going to vindicate the rights of all Alaskans,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said when his case was argued before the court in January.

Sturgeon contended that park rules that apply in the Lower 48 are suspect in Alaska, where the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act sets more specific policies for the 104 million acres it covers.

Sturgeon pointed to a provision in the law that he contends means the Nation River is state-owned, and thus not subject to federal rules even though it passes through the federal preserve. That is an important question the lower court did not decide, Roberts said, so the Supreme Court was not in position to rule on it.

But the Supreme Court did agree with Sturgeon and his supporters on a general concept: Alaska is different.

ANILCA requires certain accommodations — commercial fishing, the use of snow-machines and airplanes, for instance — not allowed in other federal conservation areas.

“All those Alaska-specific provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule,” Roberts wrote. The 9th Circuit’s reading of the law “would prevent the Park Service from recognizing Alaska’s unique conditions.”

Sturgeon said he was still absorbing the decision, “but that’s a positive thing. It’s a bit disappointing but not that surprising” that the case moves back to lower court.

He counts it as at least a partial victory, unlike in 2007 when, as Roberts noted, Sturgeon returned home “without a moose.”

The case is Sturgeon v. Frost.

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