State urges Supreme Court to stop federal regulation of State Waterways

photo by Greg Lincoln

The State of Alaska today (Aug. 14th, 2018) in an amicus brief urged the U.S. Supreme Court in Sturgeon v. Frost to uphold state management of state navigable waterways and overturn the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ expansive decision in favor of the federal government.
“The Ninth Circuit’s decision is both bad law and bad for Alaska,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth. “We are very hopeful the Supreme Court will once again reject Ninth Circuit’s faulty interpretation and recognize the State’s rights under ANILCA to manage our rivers. In a state with many remote areas, our rivers provide critical transportation access as well as access to fishing, hunting, and other activities.”
This is the second time the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up John Sturgeon’s case. Last time, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Sturgeon and the State, recognizing that management of its resources is critical to Alaska’s sovereignty. The State hopes the Court will again overturn the Ninth Circuit and restore the state’s right to manage its waters.
“It has been a long journey for Mr. Sturgeon, and I commend his perseverance in continuing to push back against this overreach by the federal government,” said Attorney General Lindemuth. “I, along with all Alaskans, owe him a debt of gratitude.”
The Ninth Circuit rejected Sturgeon and the State’s arguments that because Congress intended for the Alaska National Interest Lands Act (ANILCA) to provide Alaska “adequate opportunity to provide for the economic and social needs of Alaskans,” the Park Service does not have broad authority to regulate state navigable rivers. Instead, the Ninth Circuit relied on the federal reserved water rights doctrine—previously used in the Katie John cases to give meaning to the rural subsistence priority for fishing in ANILCA—and greatly expanded it to cover all regulation by the National Park Service of state navigable waterways going through federal park land.
“I am hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court will once again support state’s rights, while also protecting the important rural subsistence priority,” said Attorney General Lindemuth.
In its amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the State is arguing that Katie John has vitality in the limited subsistence context in which those cases arose but it should not be expanded to encompass all regulation by the federal government. According to the State, the federal reserved water rights doctrine is properly concerned with use of a specific amount of water to accomplish a narrow purpose. But the Ninth Circuit transformed it into an expansive source of federal regulatory authority, and usurped Alaska’s sovereign right to make decisions about how Alaskan waters should be managed to promote the best interests of Alaskans.
The case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this Fall, and a decision is expected by next June 2019.