Showdown in the Last Frontier: An Alaskan Hunter vs. The Federal Government

SHOWDOWN IN THE LAST FRONTIER: AN ALASKAN HUNTER VS. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

The use of a hovercraft to access hunting lands has become the subject of a long, drawn-out court process for one man in Alaska.

John Sturgeon had been doing so for over 15 years, as The Daily Signal reports. The federal grounds the 70-year-old hunted moose on for several decades had been open to him and easily accessible in his later years with the help of the hovercraft. That is, until the National Park Service got involved in 2007 when he was parked along the banks of the Nation River and they told him his hovercraft was illegal, so he was kicked out.

Since that time, Sturgeon has been involved in litigation fighting for his right to hunt on those lands using that mode of transportation. He argues that this federal regulation he supposedly violated, use of the hovercraft, was something nobody knows about; therefore, he believes that he shouldn’t be convicted of a crime if no reasonable person would have known that the charged conduct was criminal.

Sturgeon has had his case heard by multiple courts, including the court of appeals. He lost all of those cases, but he had one final shot: the U.S. Supreme Court.

A unanimous ruling in his favor by the Supreme Court now gives John Sturgeon another chance to go to trial. The justices wrote that a lower court’s misinterpretation of some wording in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act allows the case to be sent back to the lower court to address the more encompassing issue of state sovereignty vs. federal authority.

According to The Daily Signal, Alaska has “unique sovereignty, terrain, and land use issues. Congress divided regulatory authority over 104 million acres of intricately interwoven swaths of federal, native, and private land between Alaska and the federal government under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA).”

Because federal authority of certain land property is not clearly defined, it is quite easy for someone to be occupying federal land without his or her knowledge. Additionally, National Park Service regulations are not easily accessible, making it nearly impossible to know what activities are illegal. This current battle reminds many of the ongoing turmoil in the American West, where landowners and the Bureau of Land Management are at odds over the federal government’s stranglehold on a large percentage of land in those western states.

In this case, however, Sturgeon has the state of Alaska on his side. They are publicly supporting his case, and if need be, could possibly help fund it if lawmakers felt obligated to in order to protect the larger picture of sacred state sovereignty. That remains to be seen. The federal government owns a huge portion of Alaskan land, but the state and its Native corporations (separate from Native tribes) control nearly 150 million acres combined. They have a great stake in ensuring that federal overreach doesn’t become rampant.

Sturgeon’s case could have great implications on the rest of the country. A favorable ruling could "strike a symbolic blow against federal agencies many say are increasingly overstepping the bounds of their constitutional authority."

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