FAIRBANKS—John Sturgeon's lawsuit against the National Park Service now has broad ramifications for American federalism and the basic rules of land and water ownership both inside and outside of Alaska, his attorneys argue in a petition for the U.S. Supreme court to take the case for a second time.
Sturgeon's struggle with the Park Service dates back more than 10 years and has cost him and his supporters about $800,000 as it's moved through the federal courts, including a previous stop at the Supreme Court in 2016. On Jan. 2, law firms representing Sturgeon in Arlington, Virginia, and Anchorage filed a 138-page petition for a writ of certiorari, a document that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appeals court ruling.
The case challenges the applicability of a Park Service ban on hovercrafts on a river in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, but the case has always had broader ramifications than the hovercraft ban.
Sturgeon argues the Park Service has fundamentally misread the 1980 law that created Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and much of Alaska's park land — the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. When the law created the new parks in Alaska, Sturgeon argues, Congress clearly stated that federal regulations wouldn't apply to state or private lands within national conservation area boundaries, including navigable rivers.
In 2016, the high court made a narrow ruling in Sturgeon's favor and sent the case back to the California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against Sturgeon again in October. A panel of 9th Circuit judges ruled that the federal government does have authority over rivers within the national parks under the doctrine of federal reserved water rights, the idea that when Congress sets aside a region of land for a park or other federal property, Congress is also preserving water rights for that land.
Sturgeon and his attorneys see October's 9th Circuit ruling as particularly bad for states' rights — and not just in Alaska.
"If the 9th Circuit's ruling stands, the United States may claim it has reserved water rights in any standing water, wetland, or groundwater throughout the West, converting them into public lands subject to pleneary federal control, all without paying compensations," Sturgeon's petition states. ""This is an urgent issue of state sovereignty."
The Supreme Court usually accepts less than 1 percent of the cases brought to it, so Sturgeon was somewhat surprised when the high court took his case in 2016. He's more confident this time, because the case has broader ramifications now and because he believes the 9th Circuit failed to follow the Supreme Court's directions when it sent the case back.
"The ramifications of this case for the Alaska people were a compelling basis for granting review last time, and the compelling basis for granting review is no less compelling now," the petition states. "If anything, the case for certiorari is even stronger here."
The case is Sturgeon v. Frost.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors