John Sturgeon, in front of the Supreme Court in January 2016, is part of a case involving a hovercraft and moose hunting. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)

John Sturgeon, in front of the Supreme Court in January 2016, is part of a case involving a hovercraft and moose hunting. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)

Supreme Court to rehear Alaska moose-hunting case

In 2007, three Park Service officers found a man hunting from his hovercraft.

By Dino Grandoni / The Washington Post

The Supreme Court decided Monday to again take up the case of a hunter who sued the National Park Service for stopping him from shooting moose from a hovercraft in Alaska.

The case may seem provincial for the highest court in the land — and that is exactly the point, according to supporters of Anchorage, Alaska businessman and sportsman John Sturgeon.

Narrowly, the case concerns the use of certain vehicles on federal waters in Alaska. More broadly, Sturgeon’s supporters and detractors say, it may have wide implications for Alaska’s relationship with the federal government — and whether the 49th state should be treated differently from those in the Lower 48.

What happened: In 2007, three Park Service officers found Sturgeon and his hovercraft in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in east central Alaska while he was hunting for moose. Trying to kill that animal wasn’t the problem; the hovercraft was. Park Service rules prohibited such loud vehicles on park premises.

But Sturgeon’s lawyers would eventually argue that those rules for the other U.S. states do not apply in Alaska, where the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) sets more specific policies. That 1980 law allowed for accommodations such as commercial fishing and the use of snow machines and airplanes on federal conservation areas in the state.

More broadly, Washington Post Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes wrote in a profile of Sturgeon two years ago:

“It might be difficult for those in ‘America,’ as some Alaskans refer to the Lower 48, to divine such an outcome from a case that many who know the court were surprised the justices decided to accept.

“The distinctly underwhelming question — were federal officials legally justified in enforcing the hovercraft ban in the Alaskan preserve? — was deemed by the federal government’s lawyers to be ‘not in itself one of surpassing significance.’ All agree that the answer lies in a statute that applies exclusively to the 49th state.

“But Sturgeon’s petition landed at a court whose conservative members increasingly are on alert for signs that federal bureaucrats are bursting through the limits of their statutory authority.

“And it comes amid an ongoing siege in Oregon, where armed protesters are taking an unlawful but dramatic stand over the federal government’s management of its vast Western landholdings.

“Nowhere are the concerns more pronounced than in Alaska, where 60 percent of the land — an area bigger than California — is under federal control.”

In 2016 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed, overturning a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that had gone against Sturgeon. But that decision did not settle whether he could hovercraft his way back into parks.

The extent of the state’s independence from federal bureaucrats is even more relevant during Donald Trump’s presidency. On Monday, the court agreed to rehear the case.

Alaskans — at least those representing them in Congress — are sick of other politicians telling them not to drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the GOP tax bill, Trump and Republicans in Congress permitted drilling in the ecologically sensitive area in the remote northeast corner of the state over the strenuous objections of Democrats and their environmental allies.

Some of those same groups worry a victory for Sturgeon could cripple the Park Service’s other enforcement powers in the resource-rich state.

Republican Lisa Murkowski, the senior senator from Alaska, was glad to see the Supreme Court take up the case again. “Alaskans needed the Supreme Court to take this case in order to secure our right to reasonable access to Alaska’s lands and waters and undo the damage threatened by the Ninth Circuit,” she said in a statement.

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