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Judge sides with feds in hovercraft lawsuit

Park Service can enforce federal regulations on state-owned land in Alaska's national parks

Posted: November 4, 2013 - 1:01am

FAIRBANKS — The National Park Service has the authority to enforce federal regulations on state-owned lands in national parks in Alaska, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland’s decision this week comes in a case brought by an Anchorage man, who sued in 2011 after being ordered to leave the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve for using a hovercraft to hunt moose on the Nation River several years earlier.

John Sturgeon said he stopped on a gravel bar to work on his hovercraft when three armed rangers stopped, told him it was illegal to operate the boat in the preserve and ordered him to leave. Sturgeon had been using hovercraft there since 1990.

The state joined the lawsuit in December 2011 after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was denied a Park Service permit to use a helicopter to conduct salmon research on state land on the Alagnak River in Katmai National Preserve. The state hoped to secure a ruling in this case that may have limited the federal government’s authority over state-owned, navigable waters in national parks, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Attorneys for Sturgeon and the state argued that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 prohibits the Park Service from restricting the use of private and state-owned lands within Alaska national parks and preserves. Since the Nation and Alagnak rivers are considered navigable waters, the submerged lands beneath them are considered state property.

But federal attorneys said regulations adopted by the Park Service in 1996 extended the agency’s authority to enforce federal regulations on private and state-owned lands within national parks and preserves.

Holland found that regulations prohibiting hovercraft in the Yukon-Charley Rivers preserve and helicopters in the Katmai preserve weren’t adopted solely for those areas but for the entire national park system.

Attorneys for Sturgeon and the state expressed disappointment with the ruling. Sturgeon’s attorney, Matt Findlay, said he expected Sturgeon to appeal. He said the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act is supposed to be a restriction on federal authority.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell said the state also is considering an appeal.

Park Service spokesman John Quinley said he was pleased with Holland’s decision. The point of having Park Service regulations on state and private lands inside national parks, he said, is “to provide for public safety and protect natural resources.”

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