Supreme Court Rejects Lower Court’s Approach to An Alaska Land Conservation Law

In Sturgeon v. Frost the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that per Section 103(c) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), National Park Service (NPS) regulations that apply nationally apply to nonpublic land in Alaska contained in an ANILCA “conservation unit.”

ANILCA federally protects 104 million acres of land in Alaska. Contained in these conservation units are over 18 million acres of state, Native American, and privately owned land. NPS rangers informed moose hunter John Sturgeon that he could not operate his hovercraft on a river in one of Alaska’s ANILCA conservation units per a NPS regulation banning hovercrafts in national parks. Sturgeon objected pointing out that Alaska owns the river.  

The second sentence of ANILCA Section 103(c) states that no “nonpublic” (meaning non-federally owned) land “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public [federal] lands within such [conservation] units.” The Ninth Circuit concluded that this language meant that non-federally owned land contained in conservation units could be subject to NPS regulations that apply nationally—like the no hovercrafts in national parks rule. But NPS regulations applicable solely to federal land in Alaska would not apply to nonfederal land in conservation units in Alaska.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “surprising conclusion” that nationally applicable park service regulations would apply to non-federal lands in conservation units but that Alaska specific regulations would not. ANILCA is replete with Alaska-specific exceptions to NPS’s general authority over federally managed preservation areas. ANILCA “contemplates the possibility that all the land within the boundaries of conservation system units in Alaska may be treated differently from federally managed preservation areas across the country, and that ‘non-public’ lands within the boundaries of those units may be treated differently from ‘public’ lands within the unit.”

So can Sturgeon now take his hovercraft where he had for almost 40 years without fear he will receive a ticket? We don’t know. The Supreme Court leaves numerous questions about this case unanswered for the Ninth Circuit to reconsider.