Court Rules the National Park Service has the Right to Protect Rivers in Alaska

Yukon Charley River Preserve NPSIn a victory for our national parks and preserves in Alaska, on October 2, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled to uphold the National Park Service’s authority to manage boating activities on navigable rivers within park boundaries in Alaska. Wilderness Watch and other conservation groups filed an amicus brief defending the Park Service’s authority to regulate activities on rivers within national parks and preserves in Alaska, after a moose hunter sued the Park Service for the right to drive his hovercraft in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

The National Park Service prohibits hovercrafts on rivers in national parks and preserves in Alaska. But in 2011, John Sturgeon sued the Park Service, arguing that the surface of the river was non-federal land and that Congress stripped the Park Service of its authority over navigable waters based on a provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The District Court and the Ninth Circuit both upheld the Park Service’s authority to regulate waters in national parks and preserves in Alaska. After Sturgeon petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the issue, Wilderness Watch joined with several other conservation groups to defend the Park Service’s authority to regulate activities on rivers within national parks and preserves in Alaska. The non-profit law firm Trustees for Alaska represented Wilderness Watch and our allies.

 

The Supreme Court heard the case and issued a narrow decision rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of a discrete section of ANILCA. The Supreme Court stopped there, though. It declined to rule on the merits of Sturgeon’s arguments, instead opting to send the case back to the Ninth Circuit in 2016 for further analysis (to the same three Ninth Circuit judges who previously considered the case).

 

Unfortunately, after the 2017 Ninth Circuit ruling which upheld the National Park Service’s authority to regulate motorized activities on navigable rivers within park boundaries in Alaska, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case again in 2018. The Supreme Court heard oral argument on November 5, 2018, and the justices fired a broad array of questions at the litigants. Justice Sotomayor raised concerns about the Park Service’s ability to manage parks and preserves if the agency does not have jurisdiction over the navigable waters in those areas. Other justices raised questions about federal subsistence fishing rights, the authorities of various federal agencies and the impact on state sovereignty, and the differences in property interests in land and water. You can listen to an audio recording of the oral argument, or read the transcript.

The Nine Circuit rulings were an important victory for national parks, Wilderness, and other conservation system units in Alaska. While it is difficult to forecast where the Court will land, we expect to see an opinion in the next couple of months, hopefully one which upholds the Park Service's authority.

Photo: Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve by National Park Service.

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