I previously wrote about the saga of John Sturgeon, the hunter from Alaska who was told to literally pound sand after he attempted to access moose hunting grounds on his hovercraft. You can read that post HERE.
To recap, the saga of John Sturgeon is a fight about who owns and can regulate the Nation River in Alaska under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (“ANILCA”). ANILCA is also discussed in depth in my previous post and I cannot promise my summary of it is entirely accurate. Even SCOTUS has difficulty understanding that law.
After the National Park Service ejected John from the Nation River for purportedly violating the National Park Service’s ban on hovercrafts, John began his twelve (12) year legal battle to vindicate the rights of hovercrafting Moose hunters in Alaska. And he won. Sturgeon v. Frost, 587. U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 1066 (March 26, 2019).
THE NATION RIVER IS NOT A “PUBLIC LAND” UNDER ANILCA
When we last left John, the Ninth Circuit had determined that the Nation River qualified as a “public land” under ANILCA because the federal government had an “interest” in the running water under the “reserved water rights” doctrine. Sturgeon v. Frost, 872 F.3d 927 (9th Cir. 2017). SCOTUS disagreed.
SCOTUS found that reserved water rights do not give “title” to water rights. Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1079. Because the reserved water doctrine does not grant the federal government “title,” the federal government does not own an interest in the waters of the Nation River. Id.
Even if it did, SCOTUS pointed out that a reserved water right is a limited right that only allows the federal government to “take or maintain a specific amount of water” necessary to fulfill the purpose for which the government is regulating the adjacent land. Id. It does not give the federal government the right to enact laws regulating the use of that water in general. Id. This means that the federal government can take water from the Nation River to support the adjacent wildlife preserve, but it cannot enforce its general hovercraft ban on the Nation River.
Which means John is now, finally, free to hovercraft to moose-land.
THE MORAL OF THIS STORY IS…
The moral of the saga of John Sturgeon is that if at first you don’t succeed, sue everybody for twelve years.
Just kidding. That is a terrible moral. The actual moral is to never stop fighting for what you believe in, even if it really, really annoys the Ninth Circuit.