March 26, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Sturgeon v. Frost

On March 26, 2019, the Supreme Court decided Sturgeon v. Frost, No. 17-949, holding that the federal government does not own a navigable water that traverses a national park in Alaska, so the water is not “public land” under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), 16 U.S.C. § 3101 et seq., and the National Park Service may not enforce a hovercraft ban on it.

Through ANILCA, Congress preserved extensive amounts of federally owned Alaskan land for national parks and preserves. Congress designated the National Park System to oversee nearly half of this land, called “conservation system unit[s].” The National Park Service Organic Act (Organic Act), 54 U.S.C. § 100751 et seq., gives the Park Service broad authority to administer both lands and waters within all such units nationwide. Because some of the Alaskan units’ boundaries encompassed land owned by the state, Natives, or private parties, Congress specified that only those lands within each Alaskan unit that are “public lands . . . shall be deemed to be included as a portion of such unit.”16 U.S.C. § 3103(c). Congress defined “public lands” as “lands, waters, and interests therein” for which the U.S. holds title, except those that the federal government selects for future transfer to Alaska or Natives.

After the Park Service told John Sturgeon, a moose hunter, that he may not use a hovercraft over the Nation River, a navigable water, within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, an Alaskan unit, Sturgeon sued. Sturgeon contended that the federal government did not own the river so it was not “public land” and was, therefore, exempt from Park Service regulation under § 3103(c).

The District Court and Ninth Circuit held that the Park Service could enforce its anti-hovercraft regulation, even if the river was not “public land,” because § 3103(c) limited the Park Service’s authority to impose only Alaska-specific regulations on non-public land within Alaskan units. The Supreme Court rejected that holding in 2016 and asked the Ninth Circuit to consider whether the river constitutes “public land” under ANILCA, and, if not, whether the Park Service nonetheless had authority to regulate Sturgeon’s use of the river. Sturgeon v. Frost, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).

On remand, the Ninth Circuit held that the river was “public land.” Without reaching the second question, it again rejected Sturgeon’s claims. 872 F. 3d 927, 936 (2017). The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Court held that no party, including the federal government, “owns” the river, and Alaska, not the federal government, owns the land beneath it. At most, the Court instructed, the federal government’s interest in the river is a “reserved water right―permitting the government to use its waters—whether by withdrawing or maintaining—for preservation purposes, despite lacking title. But, the Court concluded, even this title to a reserved water right would not provide authority under ANILCA for the Park Service’s hovercraft ban because the ban did not further the Park Service’s preservation interests. Because they were not at issue, the Court left undisturbed other Ninth Circuit holdings that “the Park Service may regulate subsistence fishing on navigable waters.”

The Court then considered whether any other authority supported the Park Service’s hovercraft ban on the river. The Court acknowledged the Park Service’s clear right under the Organic Act to regulate this type of activity on navigable waters within conservation system units nationwide. But it held that ANILCA makes Alaska “the exception, not the rule” and precludes the Park Service from imposing a hovercraft ban on non-public land, including waters, in Alaska’s units. The Court observed, however, that the Park Service may regulate “public lands flanking rivers,” “enter into ‘cooperative agreements’ with the State (which holds the rivers’ submerged lands) to preserve the rivers themselves,” “propose that state or other federal agencies with appropriate jurisdiction undertake needed regulatory action on those rivers,” or “buy from Alaska the submerged lands of navigable waters―and then administer them as public lands” under § 3103(c).

Justice Kagan announced the judgment of the Court. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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