March 22, 2016 / 2:25 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. top court backs moose hunter in Alaska hovercraft case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with an Alaska moose hunter who contended the federal government overstepped its authority in banning hovercraft on National Park Service land in the northernmost U.S. state.

The court, in a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, handed a narrow victory to John Sturgeon in his legal challenge to the U.S. government’s power to prevent him from riding his hovercraft on a river through a federal preserve to reach remote moose-hunting grounds.

People in some parts of the country, especially western states, have complained about too much federal control of public lands. The cause was embraced by protesters who in January took over buildings at an Oregon federal wildlife refuge in a six-week armed standoff with law enforcement authorities. The last protesters surrendered on Feb. 11.

The Supreme Court threw out a lower court ruling favoring government, but did not decide the bigger question of whether the government can regulate hovercraft use on a waterway within park service property in Alaska. The answer to that question could have had implications for other park service regulations, including on oil and gas extraction.

Roberts wrote that “vital issues of state sovereignty on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other” should first be addressed by the lower courts.

Sturgeon was traveling on the Nation River in 2007 in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve when park service rangers detained him, saying he could not use his hovercraft. He argued the regulation banning hovercraft in federal parks and preserves has no force in Alaska because the river is owned by the state, which allows hovercraft.

The state of Alaska supported Sturgeon, noting that Congress in 1980 specifically limited park service jurisdiction over land within a conservation area that is not federally owned.

The nationwide rule banning hovercraft, which travel on a cushion of air, dates to 1996.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the federal government in 2014.

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

Roberts recalled that in 1867 Secretary of State William Seward negotiated to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, observing that “despite the bargain price of two cents an acre” the purchase was mocked as “Seward’s Folly.” That changed as Alaska’s natural resources, from gold and oil, emerged. Alaska became a state in 1958.

The case is Sturgeon v. Frost, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-1209.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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