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What others say: Yukon cases need careful review

Posted: December 15, 2013 - 1:59pm

Jim Wilde and John Sturgeon have both lost their lawsuits to challenge the National Park Service’s authority to dictate their behavior on navigable rivers in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The state again has the option of helping either, neither or both with appeals.

Regardless of whether one might sympathize with both men, only Sturgeon’s case merits the state’s backing.

While the cases both challenge the Park Service’s rules, they involve different laws and regulations.

Wilde, of Central, was accused and convicted of violating, among other things, the U.S. Coast Guard regulations that require boats to be registered everywhere in Alaska. He argues that the Park Service doesn’t have any business enforcing those rules on state waters and that rangers should have left him alone.

Sturgeon, of Anchorage, is not fighting a charge. He is challenging the Park Service’s regulation that prohibits him from running his hovercraft on state waters in the national preserve while moose hunting. The regulation applies only to areas managed by the Park Service.

The distinction between rules that apply everywhere and rules that apply only to park lands makes all the difference in these cases.

Sturgeon lost his argument before U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland in late October, but it is worth pursuing in a higher court. Holland’s interpretation is one rational reading of federal law, but his reading is undermined by the context in which it was passed.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 created the Yukon-Charley preserve and most other federal conservation units in Alaska. The act says regulations that are “applicable solely to public lands within such units” do not also apply to state and private lands within their boundaries.

Holland observed that the rule against hovercraft use applies to park lands nationwide, so it obviously doesn’t apply “solely” to lands in the Yukon-Charley. Therefore, the regulation must apply to state and private lands within the preserve’s boundary as well, he concluded. (The beds of navigable rivers, such as the Yukon and Nation rivers, are state land.)

Holland’s decision misses the congressional intent. Holland essentially concluded that members of Congress said “We’re going to create a bunch of new conservation units in Alaska, but, by the way, any rules created specifically for those Alaska units don’t apply to state and private lands, even while all national rules do apply.” But why would Congress exempt inholdings of Alaska units only from Alaska-specific regulations? It didn’t.

There is a much more logical explanation for the congressional language, one that fits the recollections of those who were there. When Congress said state and private lands are exempt from rules that apply “solely” to Alaska’s conservation units, the word “solely” was used to distinguish the units from all other federal lands, not from other conservation units outside Alaska.

That’s was the distinction Congress made in 1980. The state shouldn’t let Holland rewrite it in Sturgeon’s case. Because the hovercraft ban is a rule that applies solely to Park Service lands as opposed to all federal lands, it cannot apply on state waters in the preserve.

Jim Wilde, however, doesn’t get a pass under ANILCA, which is probably why the state backed off its initial enthusiasm for the case. Wilde had the misfortune of violating a regulation that applies everywhere — the U.S. Coast Guard rules say boats must be registered and can be stopped for safety inspections.

Of course, the Park Service’s enthusiastic application of that law on the Yukon was annoying. But that’s what the nation’s law allows when it comes to boats, and it doesn’t matter whether those boats are on state or federal property. In fact, the state of Alaska itself has adopted the Coast Guard rules. The rules clearly do not apply solely in conservation units, so arguing that ANILCA prohibits the Park Service from enforcing them on state and private lands within the preserve borders is a doomed approach.

Alaska’s unprecedented conservation lands were set aside through a process of compromise, one that recognized that the sheer size of the units demanded a different approach than elsewhere in the nation. Alaska should insist that the terms of that compromise be honored, but it should also pick its battles judiciously.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Dec. 8

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