Alaska man takes fight over land access rights to U.S. Supreme Court
An Alaskan moose hunter is spending a small fortune to fight what he calls federal overreach on millions of acres of land across our state. John Sturgeon says Alaskans have the right to drive their boats into a national preserve so they can hunt, but that the federal government is standing in the way. He’s taking his fight 4,000 miles east, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Ten years ago or so I was on a sand bar in the Yukon River and here I am in front of the Supreme Court. It’s pretty incredible,” Sturgeon noted.
Sturgeon owns a cabin in Eagle, Alaska, near the border of Canada. It’s some of the most remote land in the state. For the past 45 years, he’s used the rivers in the Yukon Charlie National Preserve to access land for one of his favorite pastimes: moose hunting. But in 2007, Sturgeon was riding his hovercraft on the Nation River, when his steering cable broke. He so stopped on a sand bar. Three national park rangers were close behind.
“I thought they were really curious about how hovercraft worked, how I used it and stuff, then all the sudden like in the movies, he pulls out a rule book, opens it up and reads one line, ‘Hovercrafts not allowed in parks and preserves,'” he explained. “The tone completely changed.”
Sturgeon said the rangers told him if he drove the hovercraft out of the preserve, they would give him a citation. When he asked them how he could do that, he claims they looked him right in the eye and said, “that’s your problem.”
Strurgeon loaded his 10-foot-by-6-foot hovercraft into a friend’s motorboat and managed to get it out of the preserve without a citation. However, the more he thought about the incident, the more upset he got.
The land where the National Park Service threatened a citation was on a pocket of state land within the preserve. It’s land that Sturgeon said Congress promised to protect for the Alaskan way of life. Over the past 36 years, Sturgeon said the federal government has forgotten their promise and is abusing their power.
In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). It set aside more than 100 million acres of land, some of that national preserves, which allowed Alaskans access for hunting and fishing.
“All we’re saying is, ‘hey you made these promises 35 years ago, federal government, and we expect you to keep them,’” Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon says he never wanted to pick a fight with the feds. The 75 year old would rather be spending time with his two kids and three grandkids, but he’s worried what might happen if he doesn’t keep up his fight. He and his legal team believe if no one stands up to the government, they will continue to bully Alaskans.
“We think they are overreaching and we think only way to stop them is a lawsuit like this,” Sturgeon explained. “That’s kind of sad but there’s nothing else to stop them unless you take them to court. The longer you wait the more brazen they become and a case like this is a gut check.”
It’s an attitude that keeps him going, even though so far, he’s lost every step of the way. In Alaska, the district court ruled against him. Then, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco agreed with the National Park Service. Meanwhile, his legal bills keep piling up. When all is said and done, Sturgeon says he will owe his team of lawyers $650,000 — an expensive fight Sturgeon says is well worth the money.
“I guess it’s the principle of it. I’ve been in natural resource field my whole career and Alaska has been very good to me,” he said. “I think this is something that needed to be done. There are many promises made in ANILCA and this is just one of them.”
The Supreme Court hears just 75 of the about 10,000 cases that are appealed before them. Most of the lawyers and people connected to this issue were surprised the nine justices would take up Sturgeon’s case, but his lawyer, Matt Finley, is glad they did. He says one reason why may be because the lawsuit isn’t just about a man and his hovercraft anymore. The implications are huge.
If Sturgeon loses, the judges could rule that National Park Service regulations apply to all of the land within national preserves in Alaska, which include land owned by the state, Alaskans and Native Corporations. If that happens, they could be banned from activities like building roads, cabins and developing natural resources on their own lands.
The state of Alaska, several Native Corporations, and Alaska’s Congressional delegation are all behind John Sturgeon, both in words and in dollars. Ed Rasmuson of the Rasmuson Foundation is splitting most of the bills with Sturgeon, and both Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have held fundraisers. Sturgeon says last month in Fairbanks, Sen. Murkowski helped raise nearly $70,000 in just 10 minutes.
The case, Sturgeon v. Masica, will be heard in front of the justices on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern time, which is 6 a.m. Alaska time. Each side will get 30 minutes to answer questions from the justices.
The National Park Service declined an interview for this story, saying they could not comment while litigation is still pending. In their brief, however, they claim they have extensive authority to regulate activities, even to prevent Alaskans from traveling on state-owned lands and waters.
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