For decades, John Sturgeon drove a hovercraft on the Nation River to get to a moose hunting ground in Alaska. A portion of that river ran through the Yukon-Charley Preserve, which was a designated a conservation unit under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The Act designated as public lands only and being part of such a unit and subject to federal regulation.
One day, National Park Service rangers, enforcing a Park Service rule that applied to all parks nationwide, told Sturgeon he was not allowed to operate his hovercraft on navigable waters within the Preserve. Sturgeon complied, but then sought an injunction. The district court and Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief, holding that nationwide regulations were not part of the Act’s limiting language, but the Court in 2016 rejected that reasoning and remanded the case to consider whether the Nation River could be considered public land under the Act, and if not, whether the Service otherwise had authority to regulate Sturgeon’s actions. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the River was public land and again denied relief. The Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Kagan, reversed again, holding that the Nation River was not public land under the Act because the federal government cannot own running waters. Rather, title is vested in Alaska under the Submerged Lands Act. Thus, the Service had no authority to regulate the Nation River, and no basis to limit Sturgeon’s activities. “That means Sturgeon can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose,” the Court concluded. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, filed a concurrence to “emphasize the important regulatory pathways that the Court’s decision leaves open for future exploration.” A link to the decision in Sturgeon v. Frost is here.