Supreme Court will decide the reach of federal control over Alaska

November 24, 2015 | By ETHAN BLEVINS


The Supreme Court will soon decide how much control federal agencies can exercise over Alaska’s lands and waters.

A California-sized chunk of the state sits within federal “conservation system units.” These conservation areas include national parks, wildlife refuges, preserves, and so on. Such areas are subject to special federal regulations that limit use of the land for development, subsistence, travel, and recreation.

Large pockets of land owned by the state, private landowners, and tribes sit within these conservation areas, like bubbles trapped in hardened amber. The Supreme Court of the United States will soon address a question that will decide the fate of these lands: are non-federal enclaves inside federal conservation areas exempt from the special set of federal regulations that apply to the surrounding conservation system unit?

This case, Sturgeon v. Frost, sprung from a lone moose hunt. In 2007, John Sturgeon boarded his hovercraft and struck out into the Alaskan wilderness along the Nation River. His hunting plans fizzled when he bumped into three National Park Service officers. They insisted that national park regulations forbade the use of hovercrafts. Sturgeon pointed out that, although he was within the boundaries of a national park, the river ran through state land. He believed that state land inside the boundaries of a conservation area like a national park was not subject to national park regulations. And he sued to enforce his belief. That lone hunting trip has now escalated into a battle over state sovereignty and the reach of federal bureaucracy.

The legal fight has centered on a few sentences in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, known as ANILCA. ANILCA is the law that locked most of Alaska within these conservation system units. Nestled within that law are three sentences regarding how to treat non-federal lands inside conservation system units. ANILCA says that only federally owned lands within the boundaries of conservation system units “shall be deemed to be included as a portion of such unit.” In contrast, lands that belong “to the State, to any Native corporation, or to any private party [are not] subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.” Everyone agrees that this language means that non-federal lands inside conservation system units receive different treatment than the surrounding conservation area. But the exact nature of that difference has proven slippery enough to percolate up to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Court must wrestle with two competing interpretations. Sturgeon argues that this language means that no national park regulations can apply to non-federal lands inside conservation system units. The courts below, however, decided that non-federal enclaves are only free from regulations unique to Alaskan conservation areas. Nationwide national park regulations (like the hovercraft rule) would still apply. PLF filed an amicus brief yesterday to argue that John Sturgeon has it right.

ANILCA brokered a balance between the rights and interests of Alaskans and the preservation of Alaskan wilderness. Because so much of Alaska’s land and water is entombed within the federal conservation areas that ANILCA created, Congress remained solicitous of the interests of the many Alaskans who rely upon the state’s lands and waterways. ANILCA intended both to preserve treasured landscape and protect Alaska’s economy. Those three sentences embody this balance by excluding non-federal pockets of land inside conservation units from the extra coating of regulations that apply to special areas like national parks. Because most of the state lies within conservation system units, this promise was vital to Alaska’s sovereignty.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals beat this ploughshare back into a sword by holding that nationwide park regulations still apply to non-federal pockets. Indeed, many of the Alaska-specific regulations that the Ninth Circuit says don’t apply to non-federal enclaves actually lift the burden of nationwide regulations. The bizarre result is that non-federal enclaves are in some respects regulated more heavily by the National Park Service than the surrounding national park. This isn’t a balanced or sensible reading of ANILCA. Congress intended to preserve both Alaskan wilderness and Alaskan independence. It didn’t plan to strip Alaska of its sovereign interests in its own lands and waterways.

The Supreme Court of the United States should restore the balance that ANILCA brokered between the state’s autonomy and federal interests in conservation. Alaska’s stunning beauty shouldn’t impose a straitjacket on those who live there.