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Press Release

U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Sturgeon Case on Alaska Water Rights

June 18, 2018

(Anchorage, AK) –The U.S. Supreme Court this morning granted John Sturgeon’s second Petition for Certiorari in Sturgeon v. Frost, agreeing to hear the case for a second time. This case arises out of Mr. Sturgeon’s operation of his private hovercraft on the Nation River, a state navigable water running through a National Park called a Conservation System Unit.  The issue is who has authority to regulate State navigable waters within Alaska conservation units—the federal government or the State of Alaska.  “We are very excited that the Court has once again recognized the importance of this case to Alaska and the nation,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth. “Alaska will continue to support Mr. Sturgeon in this important states’ rights case to pursue our shared legal goals.”  Alaska will file an amicus brief supporting Mr. Sturgeon and request that it be allowed to present argument before the Court.

Mr. Sturgeon was using a hovercraft on his annual moose-hunting trip—an activity permitted under state law— when the Park Service threatened to cite him for violating a nationwide Park Service ban on using hovercraft in park units. Mr. Sturgeon brought suit challenging the federal government’s assertion of broad regulatory authority.  After attempts to join the lawsuit were denied by the court, Alaska ultimately participated in Mr. Sturgeon’s case as an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) at both the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court levels.  “We appreciate John Sturgeon taking on this issue that is of such great importance to Alaska. The State will continue to defend our sovereign rights and the best interests of Alaskans in the use of our lands,” says Governor Bill Walker, joining Attorney General Lindemuth in praise for this latest development in the Sturgeon case.

A federal 3-judge panel held the federal government has broad authority to regulate all navigable waters in federal national park areas in Alaska—despite the State’s ownership of the submerged lands.  The State and Mr. Sturgeon argue that because Congress intended for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to give “adequate opportunity to provide for the economic and social needs of Alaskans,” the Park Service does not have broad authority to regulate state navigable rivers.  “The decision represents a significant expansion of the federal reserved water rights doctrine, usurping Alaska’s sovereign right to make decisions about how Alaskan waters should be managed to promote the best interests of Alaskans,” says Attorney General Lindemuth. 

The last time the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, it agreed with Alaska and John Sturgeon and unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit, honoring and protecting Alaska’s sovereignty against federal overreach.  Alaska is requesting the same relief this time.

CONTACT: Senior Assistant Attorney General Ruth Botstein at ruth.botstein@alaska.gov.

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