Supreme Court decision praised as 'win' for Alaska

Gov. Bill Walker, second from right, shakes hands with Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole,left, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, right, during a press conference at the Capitol Tuesday about the Supreme Court's ruling on John Sturgeon's use of a hovercraft on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The court on Tuesday unanimously threw out a lower court ruling that upheld enforcement of National Park Service rules banning the use of hovercraft on the river.

Taking a break from the normal run of bad budgetary news, Gov. Bill Walker and four members of the Alaska Legislature held a press conference to announce some good news: The U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling in favor of an Alaska moose hunter.

“It’s a good day,” Gov. Walker said Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case Sturgeon v. Frost, which pitted an Alaska man against the National Park Service.

At issue was who had jurisdiction over rivers running through national preserves and parks: the state or the federal government.

The Supreme Court declined to decide that core issue, but it still sided with John Sturgeon, the Alaska hunter, and ordered the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals to reconsider its decision in favor of the Park Service.

The Supreme Court opinion stated that “Alaska is often the exception, not the rule” when it comes to federal regulation, something Alaska’s public officials have stated for years.

“They’ve said Alaska is unique,” Walker said. “You can’t take a broad brush … and include Alaska in it.”

While the court’s decision is limited, the governor and lawmakers said they hope it will be an example for future cases in which federal and state interests conflict.

“I think this is going to be a precedent for us in many years to come,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said that while the decision was good news, it’s important to view it in context.

He provided an analogy to sports: “This is like the first game in a very long season. … You celebrate today, but you prepare for the next one.”

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, also looked to sports for an analogy, but chose boxing. “Today’s ruling wasn’t the KO punch we were looking for in our fight against the massive overreach of the National Park Service, but it was a small victory for Alaska and the unique relationship we share with the federal government,” he wrote in a statement.

Democrats also had positive things to say about the decision. In a press release Tuesday, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said, “I am pleased by the common sense, unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Sturgeon v. Frost case. … It is a victory for those living a subsistence lifestyle, hunters, and fishermen across Alaska.”

The 9th Circuit, the largest appeals court in the United States, is the conduit for federal cases coming out of Alaska but has a reputation for liberal decisions and having those decisions overturned by the Supreme Court.

The Western Governors’ Association and Alaska’s Congressional delegation have joined the national call for splitting the 9th Circuit and creating a 10th Circuit to handle demand.

“That has not gained legs much,” Walker said, “but we would certainly support that.”

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or 419-7732.

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