A case originating in Alaska may have answered the question for those wondering how the United States Supreme Court will approach weighty questions of law and policy with a vacancy on the Court; it probably won’t.

In Sturgeon v. National Park Service, 577 U.S.  (2016), the Court had the opportunity to address a monumental conflict between state and federal rights, with the potential to tip the scales between federal and state control over millions of acres of land in Alaska.  Instead, the Court sidestepped those issues and reversed the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of a single sentence in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).  The Court remanded the case to allow the Ninth Circuit, or perhaps the district court, to try again.

The Origins of the Sturgeon Case

In 2007, a moose hunter (John Sturgeon) stopped his hovercraft on a gravel bar in the middle of the Nation River, which flows through the Yukon-Charley National Preserve, an area set aside for preservation purposes under ANILCA.  The State of Alaska owns the land underneath the river because it is navigable.  Several National Park Service (NPS) rangers warned Sturgeon that national NPS regulations prohibited hovercrafts in the park and on the Nation River as it flowed through the park.  Though NPS did not prosecute Sturgeon for the 2007 encounter, he brought a lawsuit challenging NPS’ regulations in which the State of Alaska intervened on Sturgeon’s behalf.

Why the Sturgeon Case Matters to Alaskans

The facts of Sturgeon’s case have broad implications for the management of lands in Alaska because thousands, if not millions, of acres of non-federal lands are located within the boundaries of Federal areas in Alaska and potentially subject to NPS regulations.

How the Ninth Circuit Resolved Sturgeon

The Ninth Circuit upheld NPS’ national regulations as applied to the Nation River based on its reading of the exclusion contained in the second sentence of section 103(c) of ANILCA: “No lands which . . . 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 [Conservation System Unit]s.”  Conservation System Units (CSU) are areas set aside in Alaska for national parks, preserves, refuges, and other federal purposes.  The Ninth Circuit read this provision to mean that NPS could apply its national regulations to lands within Alaska’s CSUs regardless of ownership.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that, because the regulations at issue were applicable nation-wide, they were not subject “solely” to CSUs in Alaska, and the ANILCA exclusion did not apply.

Sturgeon at the Supreme Court and Next Steps

The Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation for leading to a “topsy-turvy” result whereby NPS could regulate non-federal lands in Alaska’s CSUs with national regulations, rather than Alaska-specific ones.  The Court read ANILCA as being intended to accommodate Alaska’s unique circumstances and held that the Ninth Circuit’s approach flipped that intent on its head.  Because the Ninth Circuit’s opinion relied entirely on its interpretation of section 103(c), the Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.

So where does the Supreme Court’s opinion leave the parties?  It leaves them pretty much where they were, for now.  The Supreme Court’s decision left unaddressed “vital issues of state sovereignty” and NPS’ authority over non-federal lands in CSUs.  The parties will have to litigate these issues before the Ninth Circuit or possibly the district court.  Like any good cliff-hanger, the Sturgeon case is “to be continued . . . .”