John Sturgeon’s path to the Supreme Court began in a broken-down hovercraft on a gravel shoal in middle-of-nowhere Alaska.
He was on his way to hunt moose.
Instead, Sturgeon became the target of three officers of the National Park Service. Hunting wasn’t the problem — the hovercraft was. Even though Sturgeon had used his 10-foot rubber boat for years in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, the officers pulled out the rulebook and said noisy hovercraft were banned in all national parks, even in Alaska.
If Sturgeon was lucky enough to get it working again, they said, he still could not board it, even to get back to where he came from.
“To be frank, they were real jerks,” Sturgeon recalled.
His pique led to a lawsuit, and the lawsuit led to a surprising grant from the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court’s interest led to an outpouring of support that has startled the businessman and moose hunter.
Strangers and politicians pack fundraisers to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Admirers extol his Last Frontier virtues in a tribute video. The state’s congressional delegation has filed a friend-of-the-court brief taking his side against the federal government.
“He’s like the Alaskan version of Gideon v. Wainwright,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), referring to the landmark decision that established the right of the criminally accused to a lawyer.
“He is going to vindicate the rights of all Alaskans,” Sullivan added.
It might be difficult for those in “America,” as some Alaskans refer to the Lower 48, to divine such an outcome from a case that many who know the court were surprised the justices decided to accept.
The distinctly underwhelming question — were federal officials legally justified in enforcing the hovercraft ban in the Alaskan preserve? — was deemed by the federal government’s lawyers to be “not in itself one of surpassing significance.” All agree that the answer lies in a statute that applies exclusively to the 49th state.
But Sturgeon’s petition landed at a court whose conservative members increasingly are on alert for signs that federal bureaucrats are bursting through the limits of their statutory authority.
And it comes amid an ongoing siege in Oregon, where armed protesters are taking an unlawful but dramatic stand over the federal government’s management of its vast Western landholdings.
Nowhere are the concerns more pronounced than in Alaska, where 60 percent of the land — an area bigger than California — is under federal control.
A district judge and a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against Sturgeon, saying the law unambiguously supports the Park Service.
But allowing those decisions to stand, the state of Alaska said in its brief supporting Sturgeon, “threatens not only the state’s sovereignty . . . but also the way of life of ordinary Alaskan citizens.”
Such a coordinated backlash has some wondering whether Sturgeon’s suit might represent something more — a Trojan moose, if you will.
“Revoking the Park Service’s authority over navigable waters would cripple the Park Service’s enforcement abilities,” says a brief filed by environmental groups backing the federal government.
Sturgeon, 70, hoped the lawsuit would raise bigger issues about “federal overreach” in Alaska, but even he was surprised that the Supreme Court plucked his from the thousands of petitions it receives.
“This lawsuit has passed me by and has taken on a life of its own.”
To get from Sturgeon’s home in Anchorage to the scene of the crime, you’d drive 500 miles to the flyspeck town of Eagle, then float about 45 miles in a boat on the Yukon River, then switch to a lighter craft to traverse the shallow and rocky Nation River.
It’s technically possible but not easy to reach the spot this time of year, said Sturgeon’s friend and supporter Craig Compeau, who owns a marine supply store in Fairbanks.
He advised in an email: “The trip might involve a dog sled team, snowmachine (we don’t call them snowmobiles here — that’s a term they use down in America), bush plane, bunny boots (look them up), and/or a sealskin parka.”
But autumn is different in the Yukon, and that is when Sturgeon and his buddies have gathered at a small cabin near the Canadian border for 45 years. “It’s about more than just shooting a moose,” he said.
Sturgeon bought the hovercraft in 1991, and it allowed him to skim over the rocky river on a cushion of air. His encounter with the Park Service didn’t come until 2007.
Sturgeon challenged the officers’ assertion that the federal ban on hovercraft — the service says they are noisy and allow park visitors to go into areas where they don’t necessarily need to be — applied in the Alaskan preserve.
He contended that the riverbeds over which he was gliding belonged to Alaska and that the state had no such ban. The officers assured him that he was subject to criminal sanctions.
Once back in Anchorage, Sturgeon wrote to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to question the regulations. When he did not get a response, he went in search of a lawyer.
“I’ve been in business, so I know that if you’re going to sue somebody, you want to make sure you have a good case,” Sturgeon said. He narrowed it down to two law firms and then hired both of them.
Their challenge lies in the unique and complicated statutes that govern the federal government’s relationship with Alaska. As part of a 1971 settlement with Alaska’s Native peoples, the government guaranteed land to regional Native corporations and hundreds of Native village corporations.
It also set aside more than 105 million acres as a protected federal reserve and in 1980 established rules for its use in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
The separate protected ecosystems are a mix of federal, Native and private lands. The Native and private holdings must be treated differently than the federal lands, according to the act, and are not “subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.”
To Sturgeon and his supporters, the importance of those words is that Alaska must be treated differently. “We have an economy that a lot of people in the East don’t understand,” said Sturgeon, who ran the largest logging operation in the state and now works as a consultant to one of the Native corporations.
Having so much of the land under federal control requires exceptions so the Native corporations can use the natural resources they have been given; restrictions that would be reasonable elsewhere are not in Alaska, he said.
The courts disagreed.
For one thing, the law includes “waters” in its definition of public lands, the appeals court said, so it doesn’t really matter which government owns the riverbed.
At any rate, the court said, the correct reading of ANILCA is that land not owned by the federal government is exempt only from park regulations that apply “solely” to Alaska parks.
The hovercraft is banned nationally, not just in the Alaska preserves.
The law, the appeals court said, “unambiguously forecloses [Sturgeon’s] interpretation.”
Sullivan, the state’s junior senator and former attorney general, said it is hard for folks outside Alaska to understand how the case resonates. “Believe it or not, if you asked, most Alaskans would know all about ANILCA,” he said.
There is a sense, he said, that an agreement meant to recognize that Alaska is different now gives the federal officials more control.
“The [9th Circuit] decision gave the government more than it even asked for,” Sullivan said, and it is being cited in proposed restrictions on mining and other activities.
Sturgeon’s case reflects a “very, very broad-based coalition of Alaskans coming together and saying, ‘enough is enough,’ ” Sullivan said.
That was partially Sturgeon’s intent with the lawsuit — “I can hunt moose without a hovercraft,” he said. And so a wealthy benefactor, several Native corporations and others Sturgeon said he doesn’t even know have come forward to fund it.
Sturgeon hasn’t attended the most recent fundraisers, and he arrived in Washington on Saturday night along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren, one of whom texted him a photo of the Supreme Court to make sure he knew where to go for Wednesday’s hearing.
Sturgeon said he received a “bad draw of liberal judges” in his first two hearings. He’s hoping the Supreme Court will be different.