September 01, 2016

Grounded: Supreme Court ducks federalism questions in Alaska hovercraft ban

Nathaniel S. Currall

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, 577 U.S. ___ (2016), overturned a “topsy-turvy” holding by the Ninth Circuit, leaving unresolved significant federalism issues regarding navigable waters within federal lands. At issue was whether an Alaskan could continue to use his small personal hovercraft on his annual moose hunt on Alaska’s Nation River. While navigating the remote river in 2007, three U.S. National Park Service (NPS) rangers informed Mr. Sturgeon he was illegally operating a banned vehicle within a national preserve. Mr. Sturgeon argued that title to the waters of the river, located within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and managed by the NPS, was granted to the State of Alaska at the time of statehood, well before the park’s creation. Despite protests that he was complying with state law, the federal agents required him to leave under threat of criminal liability.

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