CIRI Involved in Supreme Court Case

The justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, taken prior to the death of Antonin Scalia in February
The justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, taken prior to the death of Antonin Scalia in February

“It seems to me the Park Service doesn’t have jurisdiction.”

Those were the last words Justice Antonin Scalia spoke from the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court before his passing earlier this year. The case involved Alaska. And, indirectly, CIRI.

The Sturgeon v. Frost case pitted Alaska moose hunter John Sturgeon against the National Park Service. It started back in 2007 when Sturgeon was prohibited from using his hovercraft on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Sturgeon didn’t have a connection with CIRI and the hovercraft incident happened far from CIRI land, but CIRI’s interests became involved when the potentially precedent-setting decision, had it survived, would have authorized the National Park Service to regulate private lands within conservation units.

While the Federal District Court in Alaska and the Ninth Circuit appeals court sided with the Park Service, Sturgeon, the State of Alaska and a group of Alaska Native corporations argued that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the law that established many of Alaska’s parks and conservation units, expressly prohibited the Park Service from dictating regulations beyond the borders of federal ownership within the conservation units.

CIRI and other Native corporations filed amicus curiae, or friend of the court, briefs in support of Sturgeon. The concern was that if the National Park Service could prohibit Sturgeon’s hovercraft on a navigable water, which the state owned, it could then control and regulate all means of access to inholdings within federal conservation units—of which CIRI owns tens of thousands of acres.

“The logical consequence of Sturgeon applies to all conservation units, not just national parks,” said Ethan Schutt, senior vice president of Land and Energy Development at CIRI. “There is more direct applicability for CIRI in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Our primary interest there is the oil and gas potential of our subsurface holdings and there’s a risk the agencies could use the Sturgeon case to prevent development and access.”

In a rare unanimous decision handed down March 22, the high court sided with Sturgeon, the State of Alaska and

The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C.

the Native corporations and remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It said the lower courts misinterpreted ANILCA and, therefore, mistakenly gave the National Park Service too much authority to regulate activities on non-federal lands within conservation units.

It was the ruling CIRI’s legal team had hoped for.

“It’s a great ruling for CIRI and the State of Alaska because the court established that the clear intent of Congress was to limit Park Service authority over privately held lands in national parks, monuments, refuges and preserves,” said CIRI Vice President and General Counsel Bruce Anders. “Even though CIRI lands may be surrounded by a federal park, those lands were not part of the park before ANILCA and they are not part of the park today.”

Meanwhile, some of the technical issues have yet to be resolved and the fight for John Sturgeon is not yet over. For example, the question of whether the Nation River qualifies as “public land” for purposes of ANILCA is going back to the lower courts for further argument.

For more information on the Sturgeon case and CIRI’s involvement, tune into the CIRI podcast, CIRIosity, located at CIRI executives Bruce Anders and Ethan Schutt discuss the complexities of the Sturgeon case and the potential impacts on CIRI’s ability to manage its land.