Hovercraft on an Alaskan River

April 15, 2019
 

Jennifer Pahre University of Illinois College of Law

University of Illinois College of Law

John Sturgeon hunted moose in Alaska.  He used a hovercraft to get to his hunting grounds, gliding on the surface of the Nation River, which flows through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

But in 2007, Park Rangers stopped Sturgeon.  Park Service rules prohibit hovercraft in most places.  Sturgeon thought, however, that the unique regulations concerning land ownership in Alaska made things different.  So, he filed suit, and his case has now, finally, been decided.  And the bottom line is that Sturgeon is right: land ownership and regulatory laws in Alaska are different—and the difference matters. 

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.  After a time, the Forest Service decided to protect the land’s natural resources, and imposed restrictions on mining and logging.  Alaskans were unhappy about these restrictions, and they did not care for federal involvement in the management of their territorial land.

So, when the 1958 Alaskan Statehood Act came along, Alaska was given ownership of its choice of 103 million acres of vacant federal land.  And through incorporation of the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, Alaska also received title to lands beneath navigable waters, like the Nation River.  This, in turn, gave Alaska regulatory authority over the public use of such waters.

However, one group had been overlooked: the Alaska Natives.  They asserted aboriginal title to the property the state was taking.  To resolve their claims, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which permitted Alaska Native corporations to select and acquire 40 million acres of federal land. 

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act also directed the Secretary of the Interior to designate 80 million more federal acres for inclusion in the national park system.  When Congress failed to ratify the designation, President Carter simply proclaimed most of the lands to be national monuments, bringing them under national park management.

This created a new controversy among Alaskans, who again felt the federal government was interfering.  In response, Congress enacted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.  This new legislation rescinded President Carter’s monument designation, and set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land as national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges, including the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where Sturgeon took his hovercraft. 

The boundaries for these new parks followed topographical features.  So, Native, state, and private property wound up inside.  But Congress made sure that these lands would not be treated like other federal property: the Act provided that any Native, state, or private lands that fell within a park unit’s geographic boundaries would be excluded from federal management regulation. 

So, thus far we have two point for John Sturgeon and his hovercraft:  first, the land underneath the Nation River is owned by Alaska; and second, even though it is inside a national park unit, it may not be regulated by the federal government.  And there is a third point, too: while the federal government is permitted to regulate river water to ensure the survival of fishes and prevent resource depletion, hovercraft does not deplete or even sit in river water.  Hovercraft just hovers on air above the water.  So, for three reasons, no federal regulation can apply.

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the opinion in John Sturgeon’s case, once said, “Law matters.  Because it keeps us safe, because it protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms.”  Certainly, the law matters to John Sturgeon, who is once again free to ride his hovercraft down the Nation River to his favorite hunting grounds.