By Lawrence Hurley
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 traveling through a federal preserve on his hovercraft to get to remote moose-hunting grounds.
The court threw out a lower court ruling in favor of the government, but it did not decide the bigger question of whether the government can regulate the use of hovercraft on a waterway within a National Park Service property in Alaska. Roberts wrote that "vital issues of state sovereignty on the one hand, and federal authority, on the other" should be addressed by the lower courts first.
At issue was whether the U.S. National Park Service has the authority to issue a regulation than bans hovercraft use in Alaska, a legal question that could have implications for other park service regulations including limits on oil and gas extraction.
Sturgeon was traveling on the Nation River in 2007 in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve when park service rangers detained him and said he could not use his hovercraft. He contended that 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.
People in some parts of the country, especially in 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 a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in a six-week armed standoff with law enforcement authorities. The last of the protesters surrendered on Feb. 11.
The state of Alaska filed court papers supporting Sturgeon, arguing that Congress, in a 1980 law, 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, has been in place since 1996.
In 2014, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed the federal government.
The appeals court said park service regulations are limited in scope only if they are Alaska-specific. That would mean national regulations like the hovercraft ban could be interpreted more expansively to cover land within a conservation area not federally owned.
The case is Sturgeon v. Frost, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-1209.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)