SCOTUS Backs Hunter Who Uses A Hovercraft To Track Moose In National Preserve

Image courtesy of JustintRussell

Hovercraft. Moose. The Supreme Court of the United States. If you think those three things are totally unrelated, well, you’re wrong. The highest court in the land ruled in support of a hunter who uses a hovercraft to track moose in a national preserve in Alaska, overturning a lower court’s ruling.

The Supremes were unanimous [PDF] in vacating a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that had upheld enforcement of National Park Service rules that ban the use of hovercraft, and remanded the case for reconsideration of the hunter’s arguments.

The man was piloting his hovercraft over a stretch of Nation River in Alaska that runs through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, which is managed by the NPS. A hunter for 40 years, he used the amphibious vehicle capable of gliding over land and water to navigate shallow parts of the river.

Park Service rangers told the man that hovercrafts were prohibited in the preserve, but the man protested that Park Service regulations didn’t apply because the river was owned by the state of Alaska.

He was ordered to remove his vehicle from the preserve, which he did — but he then later filed a lawsuit against the Park Service. Alaska intervened in support of him as well.

He argued that the Nation River is owned by Alaska, and that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) prohibits the park service from enforcing its regulations on state-owned land in Alaska, known as conservation system units. The Park Service disagreed, saying it has the authority to regulate the waters that flow through federally-managed preservation areas.

The District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Park Service. But SCOTUS backed the hunter, with Chief Justice Roberts delivering the unanimous opinion of the court.

In that opinion, Roberts notes that federal law governing park service authority contains several Alaska-specific provisions, reflecting “the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule.”

He points to a section of ANILCA which concerns the Park Service’s authority to regulate “non-public lands” in Alaska, and says no lands that belong to “the State, any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.”

The Ninth Circuit Court’s interpretation of the law would prevent the Park Service “from recognizing Alaska’s unique conditions,” Roberts says.

“Under that reading, the Park Service could regulate ‘non-public’ lands in Alaska only through rules applicable outside Alaska as well,” Roberts wrote. “Thus, for example, if the Park Service elected to allow hovercraft during hunting season in Alaska — in a departure from its nationwide rule — the more relaxed regulation would apply only to the ‘public’ land within the boundaries of the unit. Hovercraft would still be banned from the ‘non-public’ land, even during hunting season.”

SCOTUS didn’t decide the bigger question of whether the government can regulate hovercraft use on a waterway within park service property in Alaska, finding only that the Ninth Circuit misinterpreted ANILCA. If the court had ruled on that question, it could’ve had implications on other park service regulations.

The high court is leaving the question of whether the hunter has a right to use his hovercraft near the Nation River to the lower court.

“The parties’ arguments in this respect touch on vital issues of state sovereignty, on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other. We find that in this case those issues should be addressed by the lower courts in the first instance,” Roberts wrote.

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