Sturgeon v. Frost

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Sturgeon v. Frost.


Is the National Park Service’s authority to exercise regulatory control over non-public lands located within the National Park System limited by Section 103(c) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980?

Oral argument: 
January 20, 2016

The Supreme Court will decide the extent to which the National Park Service (“NPS”) has the authority to regulate non-federal lands located within federal conservation system units (“CSUs”) under Section 103(c) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (“ANILCA”). See Brief for the Petitioner, John Sturgeon at 17. Petitioner John Sturgeon argues that Section 103(c) of ANILCA extends regulatory power to NPS only over public lands within the boundaries of CSUs and that lands and waters owned by the State, a Native Corporation, or a private party will not be subjected to such regulations. See id. Conversely, Respondent Bert Frost maintains that the contested navigable waters do not fall in the carve-out identified by Section 103(c) and that NPS has the authority to regulate such territory in the pursuit of federal interests. See Brief for the Respondent, Bert Frost at 25. The Supreme Court’s decision will impact the extent of Alaska’s control over resources within the state. See Brief for the Petitioner at 17.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does Section 103(c) of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 prohibit the National Park Service from exercising regulatory control over State, Native Corporation, and private Alaska land physically located within the boundaries of the National Park System?


In September 2007, John Sturgeon was operating a state-registered hovercraft to access moose-hunting grounds surrounding the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley National Preserve in Alaska. Sturgeon v. Masica, 768 F.3d 1066, 1070 (9th Cir. 2014). Sturgeon had parked his hovercraft on a gravel bar in the river to make repairs when three National Park Service (NPS) rangers approached him. Id. The NPS rangers explained that Sturgeon was committing a federal crime by using the hovercraft within the Yukon-Charley, and the rangers requested that Sturgeon remove the hovercraft from the territory to avoid a criminal citation, despite Sturgeon’s protests that his actions were legal because the Nation River was an Alaskan-owned navigable river. Id. Subsequently, Sturgeon met with an NPS special agent, who confirmed that though the State of Alaska (“Alaska”) owned the submerged lands on the banks of the Nation River, NPS would maintain its position that operating a hovercraft in this area was a federal crime. Id. Accordingly, Sturgeon complied with the NPS decision and refrained from using his hovercraft during the 2008 through 2010 moose-hunting seasons. Id.

Sturgeon contacted the Secretary of the Interior, head of NPS’ parent department, requesting that the NPS restrictions regulating the state-owned navigable waters within national park boundaries either be repealed or amended. Id. After receiving no response, Sturgeon sued several federal defendants, including the Alaska regional director of NPS, in federal district court seeking a declaratory judgment stating that ANILCA was violated by the NPS’s regulations and enjoining NPS from interfering with the use of his hovercraft on the navigable waters in the Yukon-Charley territory violated ANILCA. Id. The State of Alaska joined the suit, also challenging the enforcement of a similar NPS regulation. Id. at 1069. Sturgeon and Alaska argued that Section 103(c) of ANILCA, which place 105 million acres of federal land in Alaska into conservation system units (“CSUs”) but excluded certain private and non-federal public lands from regulation for environmental purposes as well as economic uses for Alaskan natives, prevented NPS from regulating the use of state-owned lands and navigable waters within the NPS boundaries in Alaska. Id.

The United States District Court for the District of Alaska (the “District Court”) granted the summary judgment for the federal defendants upon a finding that the plain language of ANILCA Section 103(c) did not support Sturgeon and Alaska’s interpretation of the provision. Id. at 1070–71. The District Court acknowledged that Alaska held title to the submerged bed of the Nation River, but it found that NPS was legally allowed to ban the use of hovercrafts at a national level, including in the disputed area, because Section 103(c) only prevented the application of state-specific regulations. See Id. Upon appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling, confirming that NPS’s nationwide regulation did not contravene ANILCA’s limitations. Id. at 1077. The Ninth Circuit stated that ANILCA did not supersede the authority that Congress afforded to the Secretary of the Interior because the hovercraft ban applied to all federal-owned lands and waters overseen by NPS nationwide rather than just federal-owned lands in Alaska. Id. at 1078. Additionally, the Ninth Circuit determined both that Alaska lacked standing to challenge NPS’s authority and that the Interior Secretary did not exceed her statutory authority in promulgating the hovercraft ban. Id. at 1075, 1079.

The Supreme Court granted Sturgeon’s petition for certiorari on October 1, 2015. See Brief for the Petitioner at 17.


In this case, the Supreme Court will weigh the scope of ANILCA. See Brief for Petitioner at 21. Sturgeon contends that navigable waters are non-public land and ANILCA Section 103 prevents NPS from regulating non-public land. See Id. at 18. Frost argues instead that the federal government never conveyed navigable waters within CSUs to the state of Alaska, but rather retained rights over those waters under the reserved water rights. See Brief for Respondent at 28. Alternatively, Frost contends that Section 103 does not protect non-public lands from navigable water regulations that govern all national parks. See Id. at 47.


Sturgeon argues that the navigable waters within CSUs are non-public land and therefore NPS is limited in its ability to regulate the waters under ANILCA Section 103. See Brief for Petitioner at 33. Sturgeon argues that land that was conveyed by the federal government to the state of Alaska falls within the protections of Section 103. See Id. at 34. Sturgeon then asserts that submerged lands and navigable waters, such as the ones in this case, were conveyed to the state of Alaska in the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, are under the state’s authority to control, and are therefore non-public lands. See Id. at 33, 36. According to Sturgeon, although this “conveyance” did not entail a deed, it still meets the legal definition of conveyance and therefore qualifies as non-public land. See Id. at 34. Accordingly, Sturgeon contends that navigable waters are subject to the protection of Section 103. See Id. at 35. Lastly, Sturgeon contends that NPS has no additional federal reserved water rights over waters flowing through CSUs as any additional rights relate only to subsistence issues. See Id. at 38.

Frost counters that navigable waters are public lands and therefore NPS can regulate them regardless of the proper interpretation of ANILCA Section 103. See Brief for Respondent at 26. Frost argues that the federal government never conveyed the navigable waters to the state of Alaska. See Id. at 27. While Frost concedes that the state of Alaska conveyed the land beneath the navigable waters, Frost argues that this conveyance did not include the waters themselves. See Id. at 27. Frost contends that no state has ownership of navigable waters; therefore federal regulation predominates. See Id. at 28. Frost also asserts that the federal government has title under the doctrine of reserved water rights, which permits the federal government to regulate water areas appurtenant to national parks to accomplish the goals of conservation. See Id. at 30. This is meant to counter Sturgeon’s argument that reserved water rights are only related to subsistence by asserting that the rights serve a broader purpose than subsistence, including conservation. See Id. at 32. Finally, Frost argues that various other provisions of ANILCA lend support to define navigable waters as public land. See Id. at 33.


Sturgeon then argues that despite the seminal administrative law jurisprudence of Chevron deference, which accords a heavy presumption of validity for agencies’ interpretations of the statues they administer, a clear congressional intent behind this statute is contrary to NPS’ interpretation and thus supersedes it. See Brief for Petitioner at 21. Sturgeon contends that when ANILCA was passed, Congress intended to exclude state-owned lands from regulation by the National Park System. See Id. at 22. Sturgeon interprets Section 103 (“No [non-public] lands…shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within [CSUs]”) to mean that NPS may only regulate CSUs and that CSUs under ANILCA Section 103 do not include non-public lands. See Id. at 23. Accordingly, Sturgeon concludes the waterways are non-public lands and therefore are not subject to federal regulation under ANILCA. See Id. at 24. Moreover, Sturgeon contends that the current NPS interpretation of ANILCA, that ANILCA Section 103 only exempts CSUs from CSU-specific regulation, was never interpreted as such before the present litigation. See Id. at 25. Rather, Sturgeon argues that ANILCA Section 103 applies to NPS authority generally, rather than CSU regulation specifically. See Id. at 26. Sturgeon looks to the specific text of the statute, contending that the word “solely” modifies “public lands” rather than “within CSUs.” See Id. at 26. Sturgeon asserts that the legislative record supports this conclusion because Congress protected non-public lands from regulation throughout the statute and ANILCA was passed with the primary goal of protecting non-public interests from federal intervention. See Id. at 28.

Frost asserts that Congress intended for navigable waters to be considered public lands. See Brief for Respondent at 47. Frost first points to the location of Section 103—within the “Maps” section of the statute, rather than in a section limiting the government’s authority—as an indication that Congress did not intend Section 103 to limit NPS authority. See Id. at 41. Frost further supports this contention by suggesting that the legislative history shows that Congress did not want Section 103 to significantly reduce NPS authority. See Id. at 43. Alternatively, Frost suggests that even if navigable waters are non-public lands under Section 103, it provides no protection against regulations applicable to national parks generally. See Id. at 48. Frost argues that Section 103 was only intended to exempt non-public land from CSU-specific regulations. See Id. at 49. Frost then asserts that the NPS has statutory authority to regulate navigable waters on national park land, public and non-public alike, and therefore NPS was acting within its authority by enforcing its hovercraft regulation on non-public land. See Id. at 48.


Sturgeon next asserts that if ANILCA Section 103 is ambiguous and thus Chevron deference applies, the NPS interpretation is unreasonable and therefore cannot be controlling. See Brief for Petitioner at 30. Sturgeon contends that while NPS concedes that the statute is intended to limit the regulatory authority, under the current NPS interpretation, NPS could circumvent any limitation by passing a regulation. See Id. at 31. Moreover, Sturgeon contends that the NPS interpretation of Section 103 prevents non-public Alaska land from ever receiving less stringent treatment than other regions, but would permit public land from being treated in a less-stringent manner. See Id. at 32. Sturgeon contends that this interpretation is nonsensical and therefore cannot be applied. See Id. at 32.

Frost agrees that if the statute is ambiguous, the Secretary of the Interior’s interpretation is controlling so long as it is reasonable. See Brief for Respondent at 53. Frost argues that the Secretary’s interpretation is reasonable because she acted within her grant of authority by passing a regulation stating that all navigable waters within national parks are subject to general NPS regulations. See Id. at 54. Frost also looks to comparable unchallenged regulation of solid waste disposal sites that is applicable to non-public lands in CSUs as evidence that the Secretary has reasonably interpreted Section 103 as applying to non-public land within CSUs. See Id. at 54.


In this case, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to determine the extent that ANILCA
Section 103(c) allows federal regulation of non-public land and water located in the boundaries of CSUs. See id. Sturgeon argues that Congress provided only for federal regulation to extend to public lands within CSUs and that no land or water owned by “the State, [a] Native Corporation, or [a] private party shall be subject to regulations applicable solely to public lands.” See id. Conversely, Frost contends that the navigable waters in National Parks do not fall within the terms of ANILCA’s Section 103(c). See Brief for the Respondent at 25. The Court’s decision will determine the extent of control that a federal agency has over non-public territory in national parks and how those regulations may impact the use of such lands. See Brief for the Petitioner at 20.


In support of Sturgeon, Alaska argues that the Ninth Circuit’s decision usurps Alaska of its decision-making authority by transferring that power to a federal agency, which upsets the federal-state balance. See Brief of the State of Alaska, in Support of Petitioner at 8–9. Alaska contends that it has a sovereign right to manage the lands and waters within its territory, including the waters running over submerged lands that Alaska was given title to upon the grant of its statehood. See Id. To support this argument, the Pacific Legal Foundation (“PLF”) maintains that Congress did not intend for ANILCA to interfere with Alaska’s sovereign interest in the state’s regulation of land and water. See Brief of the Pacific Legal Foundation, in Support of Petitioner at 8. PLF claims that the plain language of ANILCA states that non-federal territory within CSUs, including waters that run through land where non-federal parties own title, are not a part of the park system, are free from all NPS regulations, and should only be subject to regulation by Alaska. See Id. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation et al. (“ASRC”) further argue, on behalf of Sturgeon, that the Ninth Circuit’s decision improperly extends federal regulatory authority over millions of acres of private land without constitutional basis in either the Property Clause or the Commerce Clause. See Brief of Arctic Slope Regional Corporate et al., in Support of Petitioner at 3. ASRC contends that Congress intended to limit NPS’s control to federal lands, expressly excluding State and Native corporation lands from ANILCA’s reach, and the Ninth Circuit’s decision directly contradicts that intention. See id.

On the other hand, Frost argues that, while Alaska might hold the title to the submerged lands, this ownership does not mean that Alaska has exclusive control over navigable waters above such land. See Brief for the Respondent at 28. Rather, Frost claims that the Court has determined that even when a state owns such submerged land, the federal government reserves the right to regulate the waters above by virtue of the dominant federal navigational servitude. See Id. Furthermore, Frost contends that the United States has reserved water rights in the navigable waters within national parks for the purposes of conserving scenery, natural objects, and wildlife. See Id. at 30. Accordingly, the disputed waters are considered “public lands” due to the aforementioned federal interests and ANCILA Section 103(c) does not prevent those federal agencies and persons charged with managing parks from achieving these interests by removing such lands from federal regulation. See Id. at 31.


In support of Sturgeon, Alaska argues that it has a sovereign right to manage the land and water it holds title to and any interference with such management hinders Alaska’s power to provide its residents, both native and non-native, with continued access to key resources. See Brief of the State of Alaska, in Support of Petitioner at 8. Due to it’s vast yet scarcely populated land boundaries, Alaska contends that unimpeded state sovereignty over the state’s land and water is crucial to providing Alaskan citizens with access to critical food sources, means to travel across remote territory, and an opportunity to provide additional income by capitalizing on local resources. See Id. at 15. Furthermore, Doyon, Limited et al. (“Doyon”) maintain that Congress passed ANILCA with the understanding that the millions of acres of federal lands allocated to Alaskan Natives by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (“ANSCA”), which Congress passed in 1971 to settle the aboriginal claims of Alaskan Natives, would be excluded from CSU regulations. See Brief of Doyon, Limited et al., in Support of Petitioner at 22. Doyon claims that Congress passed ANILCA and, in particular, Section 103(c) with the intention of protecting economic development and potential growth of native corporations by shielding them from restrictive CSU regulations. See Id. at 27. Furthermore, United States Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Representative Don Young argue that the Ninth Circuit’s decision contravenes Congress’ commitment to support economic development and activities of native corporations by providing federal authorities with the power to promulgate regulations that require these corporations to secure approval before engaging in any number of activities, including landing a plane, altering a camping site, or hunting. See Brief for United States Senators Sullivan and Murkowski and Representative Young, in Support of Petitioner at 32. Additionally, the Safari Club International argues that NPS’s regulatory ban against the operation of aircrafts in waters of Alaska’s CSUs will make it impossible for hunters to access and use otherwise inaccessible areas of national preserves for hunting. See Brief for the Safari Club International, in Support of Petitioner at 10.

Conversely, Frost contends that ANILCA simply maintains the authority that NPS exerted over public land, including the contested navigable waters, rather than affecting a sweeping withdrawal of authority. See Brief for the Respondent at 43. Frost asserts that ANILCA still allows rural residents to legally engage in a subsistence way of life, including partaking in customary subsistence hunting and fishing activities on public lands within the National Park System. See id. at 34. Frost maintains that Congress preserved many rural Alaskans’ way of life by incorporating these provisions in ANILCA, but that Congress still intended that the Secretary of the Interior would retain the authority to regulate navigable waters. See id. at 34-35.


In Sturgeon v. Frost, the Supreme Court must address the regulatory powers of the National Park Service and determine the protections available to land owned by the states in which parklands are located. See Brief for Petitioner at 21. Sturgeon argues that navigable waters were conveyed to the state of Alaska, which qualifies them as non-public land, and such waters are not subject to regulation under ANILCA. See Id. at 18. Frost argues that navigable waters are public land and therefore are not protected by ANILCA Section 103 or, alternatively, that Section 103 does not prevent the application of regulations governing non-public land. See Brief for Respondent at 28. The Supreme Court’s decision will determine who has ultimate sovereignty over navigable waters within Alaska CSUs. See Brief of the Pacific Legal Foundation at 8.

Edited by 

Additional Resources 

  1. Ethan Blevins, Supreme Court Will Decide the Reach of Federal Control Over Alaska, Pacific Legal Foundation (Nov. 24, 2015).
  2. Garrett Epps, A Constitutional Right to Hovercraft?, The Atlantic (Oct. 25, 2015).