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Ninth Circuit: No Hovercraft on National Park River

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

No paved roads access the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where Alaska permits locals to hunt for subsistence and sport.

John Sturgeon wanted to hunt for moose among an estimated 175,000 of the creatures in the state. So he traveled by hovercraft along the rivers, until two national park rangers stopped him.

Sturgeon sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court sided with him. But somehow, while going up and down the court system, Sturgeon lost his way.

Federal v. State

Ultimately, it was a battle of governments. Alaska authorized Sturgeon to use the hovercraft, but the National Park Service did not.

In Sturgeon v. Frost, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal government had authority over the river. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen wrote that the government has an implied reservation of water rights.

"One of the reservation's primary purposes is to protect fish," she wrote. "The diminution of water in any of the navigable waters within Yukon-Charley's boundaries would necessarily impact this purpose, giving rise to a reserved water right."

Reversal of Fortune

It was reversal of fortune for Sturgeon, the U.S. Supreme Court having vacated a previous decision against him by the 9th Circuit. But High Court remanded the case for further consideration of the federal v. state issue.

"The parties' arguments in this respect touch on vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote at the time. "We find that in this case those issues should be addressed by the lower courts in the first instance."

On remand, the appeals panel reached the same conclusion it had the first time: the federal government has authority to regulate hovercraft use on the rivers.

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