U.S. Supreme Court Tells NPS to Stop Regulating Non-Public Lands Within Alaska Park Boundaries

On March 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme issued their decision on Sturgeon v. Frost. The case started as a challenge by an Alaskan moose hunter who wanted to use a hovercraft on state-owned waters in a National Park Service (NPS) administrated conservation unit in Alaska. It evolved into the determination of the limits the NPS has in operating the ten park units it has in Alaska. It also has implications for what the NPS does elsewhere.

Non-Public Lands

The decision clarified that the NPS has jurisdiction in Alaska only over the “public lands” within the parks. The “non-public” lands therein are exempt from NPS’s normal regulatory authority. These “non-public” lands include the state-owned navigable rivers and privately-owned parcels within park boundaries. This is different than elsewhere due to the history of land ownership and the manner in which the parks were created in Alaska.

Interesting Takeaways

Here’s some of the interesting information contained in the decision:

  1. From the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 until statehood in 1959, the U.S. federal government owned all the land in Alaska. This is about 375 million acres. (The court says 365 million, but the state says 375 million. Only in Alaska can 10 million acres be a rounding error. Onward with the big picture.)
  2. On statehood, the Alaskan government was given the right to choose about 105 million acres as its own. In this ongoing process, the state chooses land to meet the needs of settlement, resources, and recreation. The state transfers lands to local governments then leases and disposes of land to the private entities and individuals.
  3. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Act (ANCSA) granted 44 million acres and $1 billion to Native Americans. Twelve regional Native American corporations were given 16 million acres. A total of 224 villages of 25-plus people received 26 million acres, and the remaining two million acres went into a land pool for small villages of less than 25 people. Many individual Native Americans were given individual land allotments from these large grants.
  4. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act (ANILCA) designated 104 million acres for preservation purposes. The NPS now manages about 48 million acres, and Fish and Wildlife Service manages 71 million acres for a revised total of about 119 million acres.
  5. The remaining 107 million acres of Alaskan land remains under federal ownership for other purposes such as natural resource utilization and the use of agencies.
  6. The state of Alaska owns submerged lands under all navigable waters. Running waters cannot be owned by anyone. An entity may have rights to water, but no one can own it.
  7. The “reserved rights” of the NPS to water in its boundaries merely allows it to protect waters in the park from depletion or diversion. The NPS overstepped its authority when it charged user fees or imposed limitations for use of the state-owned waters. That is the right of state or other federal government entities, but not the NPS.

What’s Next?

So what comes next? We should see the NPS revise its fees schedule to the commercial users within the park to reflect this opinion. Perhaps we will be able to use airboats and other previously banned crafts more widely in Alaska. Outside of Alaska, we should see movement between the NPS and the states over the control of some waterways that pass through national parks. This is definitely a work in progress.