Sturgeon v. Frost

PETITIONER:John Sturgeon
LOCATION: Yukon-Charley River National Preserve

DOCKET NO.: 14-1209
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 577 US (2016)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2015
ARGUED: Jan 20, 2016
DECIDED: Mar 22, 2016

Rachel P. Kovner – Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the respondents
Matthew T. Findley – for the petitioner
Ruth Botstein – for Alaska, as amicus curiae for the petitioner

Facts of the case

John Sturgeon regularly hunted on the Yukon-Charley River National Preserve (Yukon-Charley), which is part of the National Park Service (NPS), in Alaska. Sturgeon used a hovercraft to hunt. During one of his hunting trips, he was approached by three NPS enforcement employees and told that NPS regulations prohibited the operation of hovercrafts within all national parks, and therefore he was prohibited from using his hovercraft within the Yukon-Charley boundaries. Sturgeon insisted that the NPS did not have jurisdiction in the area because it was a state-owned river and subsequently sued Bert Frost, the director of the NPS for Alaska. Sturgeon claimed the NPS violated Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) as applied to his use of hovercrafts on state-owned lands and waters because ANILCA limited the applicability of NPS regulations on land that is not federally owned.


Does the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 prohibit the National Park Service from exercising regulatory control over state, Native, corporate, and private Alaska land physically located within the boundaries of the National Park System?

Media for Sturgeon v. Frost

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 20, 2016 in Sturgeon v. Frost

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 22, 2016 in Sturgeon v. Frost

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have the opinion of the Court in case 14-1209, Sturgeon versus Frost.

For almost 40 years John Sturgeon has hunted moose along the Nation River in Alaska.

Parts of the river are shallow and difficult to navigate so he travels by hovercraft.

While hunting in 2007, Sturgeon piloted his hovercraft over a stretch of the Nation River that flows through the Yukon Charley River’s National Preserve.

Yukon Charley preserve is a conservation system unit located in Alaska that is managed by the National Park Service.

Alaska law permits the use of hovercraft.

Park Service regulations do not.

Park Service rangers approached Sturgeon informing him that hovercraft were prohibited within the preserve under Park Service Regulations.

Sturgeon protested that the regulations did not apply because the river itself was owned by the State of Alaska, not the Federal Government.

The Rangers were unmoved and ordered Sturgeon to take his hovercraft out of the preserve.

He complied heading home without a moose.

Sturgeon filed suit against the Park Service in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska seeking declaratory and injunctive relief permitting him to operate his hovercraft within the boundaries of the Yukon Charley Preserve.

Alaska intervened in support of Sturgeon.

Now land management is a complicated issue in Alaska arising from its unique history.

When Alaska became a state, 98% of its land was owned by the Federal Government.

The Statehood Act allowed Alaska to select about a third of that land, a 103 million acres for state ownership.

The Act did not, however, address the rights of Alaska natives, so in 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) allowing Alaska natives to select 40 million acres within the State.

ANCSA also directed the Secretary of the Interior to select up to 80 million acres of unreserved federal land in Alaska for addition to the National Park system, subject to congressional approval.

When Congress failed to approve the secretary selections, however, President Carter unilaterally designated 56 million acres of federal land in Alaska as National Monuments.

President Carter’s actions were unpopular among many Alaskans who were concerned that the new monuments would be subject to restrictive Federal Regulations.

Protesters demonstrated in Fairbanks and more than 2,500 Alaskans participated in what was known as the Great Denali-McKinley Trespass.

The goal of the trespass was to break over 25 Park Service rules in a two day period, including by camping, hunting, snowmobiling, setting campfires, shooting guns and unleashing dogs.

Congress once again stepped in to settle the controversy passing the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act or ANILCA.

That law addresses the scope of the Park Service’s Authority over lands and waters within the boundaries of conservation system units in Alaska.

Now Conservation System Units are designated by Congress.

They include National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, Wilderness Preservation Areas, National Forest Monuments and the like.

When Congress drew up these units in Alaska, it did not follow the twists and turns of Federal Land Ownership, but instead followed the topography and natural features in Alaska.

As a result, within these Federal Conservation System Units are some 18 million acres of private state and Alaska native lands, what are known as in holdings.

ANILCA provides that only the public lands, lands and waters to which the United States has titled are a portion of a Conservation System Unit.

It then goes on to provide that other lands, the in holdings, shall not be subject to regulations and this is a quote from the law, “applicable solely to public lands within conservation system units.”

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

The court below decided the dispute between John Sturgeon and the Park Service by interpreting that language in ANILCA.

The Park Service’s Hovercraft Regulation, however, was adopted pursuant to the agency’s authority to prescribe regulations concerning boating and other activities on or relating to water located within National Park System Units.

The hovercraft ban is not limited to Alaska, but instead applies in federally managed preservation areas across the country.

According to the Ninth Circuit, because the hovercraft ban “applies to all Federal owned lands and waters administered by the Park Service nationwide, it does not apply solely within Conservation System Units in Alaska.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Park Service therefore has authority to enforce its Hovercraft Regulation on the Nation River.

We conclude that this interpretation is inconsistent with both the text and context of ANILCA.

ANILCA repeatedly recognizes that Alaska is different from other places in our country and ANILCA itself accordingly carves out numerous Alaska specific exceptions to the Park Service’s General Authority over federally managed preservation areas.

Those Alaska Specific Provisions reflect the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule.

Yet the reading below would prevent the Park Service from recognizing Alaska’s unique conditions.

Under that reading the Park Service could regulate non-public lands in Alaska Conservation System Units, the in holdings, only through rules applicable outside Alaska as well.

We conclude that ANILCA did not adopt such a topsy-turvy approach.

Moreover, it is clear that ANILCA draws a distinction between public and nonpublic lands within the boundaries of conservation system units in Alaska, and yet according to the court below, if the Park Service wanted to differentiate between that public and nonpublic land in a way that took into account the special circumstances and history in Alaska, it would have to regulate the nonpublic land pursuant to rules applicable outside Alaska and the public land pursuant to Alaska specific provisions.

We conclude that this is an implausible reading of the statute and therefore reject the interpretation adopted by the court below.

The parties have a variety of other arguments that the court below did not reach because of its reading of the statute.

We leave those arguments to the lower courts for consideration as necessary in the first instance.

We vacate the judgment below and remand the case for further proceedings.

Our decision is unanimous.