Supreme Court to Decide Alaska National Parks Case

Imagine yourself (if you can) on an Alaska moose hunting trip riding along in your hovercraft. Oh no your hovercraft has just broken down! While you are repairing it, three National Park Service (NPS) law enforcement officers inform you that you cannot operate it here because of an NPS regulation banning hovercrafts.

You are shocked because you know that while the portion of the Nation River you are on is contained in a national park, Alaska owns (at least) the land under the Nation River.

So what would you do? John Sturgeon sued.   

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), adopted in 1980, federally protects 105 million acres of Alaskan land in what are called NPS “conservation system units” (CSUs). Some CSUs contain state and privately owned land.  

This issue in Sturgeon v. Frost is whether § 103(c) of ANILCA precludes NPS from regulating activities on state-owned lands and navigable waters that fall within the boundaries of CSUs in Alaska. Section 103(c) says:  “No [State, Native Corporation, or private] lands. . . shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public [federal] lands within such units.”

The Ninth Circuit held ANILCA does not bar NPS’s hovercraft regulation from applying to state-owned land in CSUs. ANILCA disallows federal regulations applicable only to federal land in CSUs to apply to non-federal land in CSUs. NPS’s hovercraft ban doesn’t just apply to public land within Alaska CSUs. It applies to “federally owned lands and waters administered by NPS and ‘[w]aters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States located within the boundaries of the National Park System, including navigable waters.’”

This legal issue in this case is very narrow and the relevant law is only applicable to Alaska. But, even beyond its facts, this case is interesting because it is just one example of the power struggle over state or federal control which the Supreme Court must resolve in many cases big and small.