AFN responds to Supreme Court’s decision on Sturgeon Case

by AFN Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court today (March 26, 2019) issued its decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, ruling navigable waters within the National Park System are exempt from the National Park Service’s normal regulatory authority. The decision is a victory for moose hunter John Sturgeon, who filed suit after Park Service rangers informed him federal regulations prohibited him from using his hovercraft within the Yukon-Charley Preserve (a conservation system unit under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)), even though state law permitted use of the vessel.

The decision is also a victory for subsistence users, because the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the subsistence provisions in the Katie John cases. Specifically, the Court in footnote 2 wrote, “[T]he Ninth Circuit has held . . . the term ‘public lands,’ when used in ANILCA’s subsistence-fishing provisions, encompasses navigable waters . . . Those provisions are not at issue in this case, and we therefore do not disturb the Ninth Circuit’s holdings that the Park Service may regulate subsistence fishing on navigable waters.”

The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) views the ruling favorably. The state’s oldest and largest statewide Native organization has joined every friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) since Ahtna elders Katie John and Dorris Charles initially sued the State of Alaska to enforce ANILCA’s subsistence provisions in 1985.

“This is good news for the Alaska Native Community and for all rural Alaskan subsistence users,” said AFN President Julie Kitka. “Hopefully this brings to a close another chapter of unnecessary litigation that threatens the customary and traditional rights of Alaskans.”

“Subsistence customary and traditional practice is the mainstay of food security in rural Alaska, the foundation of all Alaska Native cultures, and an important part of rural Alaska’s economy,” said Ana Hoffman, AFN Co-Chair. “The word ‘subsistence’ is used as a legal term. But for us it isn’t an abstract concept. It’s our way of life, part of our spiritual connection to the land and sea. Subsistence is essential to our survival.”

A permanent solution with ironclad protections for Alaskans’ subsistence rights, however, remains out of reach.

The real problem of dual federal-state management of Alaska’s fish and game resources remains unsolved. “Litigation is no place to solve our resource management problems,” said AFN Subsistence Committee Chairman Tom Tilden. “Alaskans need to work together to pass legislation that will restore a rural subsistence priority on all lands, which has been the intent of Congress all along.”

A clear majority of Alaskans support a rural priority, according to a 2014 Craciun Research poll sponsored by Ahtna, Inc.

The case had much broader implications—far beyond the narrow desire of Mr. Sturgeon to use his preferred mode of transportation—as most Alaskans recognize.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in its remand decision three years ago that the reserved water rights doctrine gives the federal government the authority to regulate public waters flowing over private lands. The doctrine, which the Ninth Circuit initially employed in the Katie John cases to determine which Alaska conservation system waters meets the legal definition of “public lands” for purposes of enforcing ANILCA’s subsistence provision, was unexpected by many. The Supreme Court’s decision to issue its ruling without disturbing Katie John is equally unexpected, and means Alaskans’ subsistence fishing rights are for the time being not imminently threatened.

AFN will analyze the decision, and actively participate in litigation at the Ninth Circuit level if necessary.

AFN is grateful for the full support of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice, representing the federal government, who was also a party to this case, as well as the NARF.