News-Miner opinion: Today in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that will resonate thousands of miles beyond the nation’s capital. The case of John Sturgeon v. National Parks Service and Department of Interior, being argued this week, could have big impacts on state residents’ ability to traverse waterways within Alaska. While the incident in question isn’t particularly notable — a disagreement over use of a hovercraft on a river flowing through a national park — the precedent it sets will be. It will provide a legal answer to the question of who has authority over navigable waters within the parks: the state or the federal government?
It’s a question Mr. Sturgeon and many Alaskans thought was settled. The relevant passage in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act reads as follows:
“Only those lands within the boundaries of any conservation system unit which are public lands (as such term is defined in this Act) shall be deemed to be included as a portion of such unit. No lands which, before, on, or after the date of enactment of this Act, are conveyed to the State, to any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.”
Mr. Sturgeon, through his attorneys, makes a straightforward case. Based on established law, submerged lands under navigable waterways (in Mr. Sturgeon’s case, the Nation River) belong to the state, so state law is in force for those transiting them. As ANILCA states, state and private lands within the boundaries of the federal areas created by the act are not to be governed by the federal rules applying to the land surrounding them. If federal law were to apply on the waterways, the ability of Alaskans to access much of the land within the state — a land mass greater in size than the state of California — could be greatly curtailed. This is of particular concern for Alaska Native corporations with holdings adjoining such lands. Federal rule changes limiting transportation on waterways could isolate parcels and greatly hinder development, subsistence hunting and fishing or other uses for their land, directly contravening the stated purposes both of ANILCA and ANCSA.
The phrase “federal overreach” has been lobbed by state leaders and Alaska’s congressional delegation so often and loudly it has lost its meaning in some cases. But in the Sturgeon case, there’s no other way to describe what’s happening. In the language of ANILCA, Congress’ intent was clear. The law sought to strike a balance between protecting federal lands that would be governed under national laws and regulations and protecting the rights of Alaskans to use, traverse and transit private holdings and those of the state. By attempting to expand the jurisdiction of federal agencies, the agencies Mr. Sturgeon has sued are significantly endangering Alaskans’ rights in that regard.
Those with an interest in the balance of federal and state power should hope Mr. Sturgeon prevails and the rights of Alaskans to travel on state waterways are protected.