John Sturgeon v. Bert Frost, in his official capacity as Alaska Regional Director of the National Park Service

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John Sturgeon v. Bert Frost, in his official capacity as Alaska Regional Director of the National Park Service  (2019) 
by the Supreme Court of the United States

Note: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.



No. 17–949. Argued November 5, 2018—Decided March 26, 2019

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska for preservation purposes. With that land, ANILCA created ten new national parks, monuments, and preserves (areas known as “conservation system units”). 16 U. S. C. §3102(4). And in sketching those units’ boundary lines, Congress made an uncommon choice—to follow natural features rather than enclose only federally owned lands. It thus swept in a vast set of so-called inholdings—more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land. Had Congress done nothing more, those inholdings could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, as the Service has broad authority under its Organic Act to administer both lands and waters within parks across the country. 54 U. S. C. §100751. But Congress added Section 103(c), the provision principally in dispute in this case. Section 103(c)’s first sentence states that “[o]nly” the “public lands”—defined as most federally owned lands, waters, and associated interests—within any system unit’s boundaries are “deemed” a part of that unit. 16 U. S. C. §3103(c). The second sentence provides that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within [system] units.” Ibid. And the third sentence permits the Service to “acquire such lands” from “the State, a Native Corporation, or other owner,” after which it may “administer[ ]” the land just as it does the other “public lands within such units.” Ibid.

Petitioner John Sturgeon traveled for decades by hovercraft up a stretch of the Nation River that lies within the boundaries of the Yukon–Charley Preserve, a conservation system unit in Alaska. On one such trip, Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” 36 CFR §2.17(e). That regulation—issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority—applies to parks nationwide without any “regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands.” §1.2(a)(3). Sturgeon complied with the order, but shortly thereafter sought an injunction that would allow him to resume using his hovercraft on his accustomed route. The District Court and the Ninth Circuit denied him relief, interpreting Section 103(c) to limit only the Service’s authority to impose Alaska-specific regulations on inholdings—not its authority to enforce nationwide regulations like the hovercraft rule. This Court granted review and rejected that ground for dismissal, but it remanded for consideration of two further questions: whether the Nation River “qualifies as ‘public land’ for purposes of ANILCA,” thus indisputably subjecting it to the Service’s regulatory authority; and, if not, whether the Service could nevertheless “regulate Sturgeon’s activities on the Nation River.” Sturgeon v. Frost, 577 U. S. ___, ___–___ (Sturgeon I.). The Ninth Circuit never got past the first question, as it concluded that the Nation River was public land.


1. The Nation River is not public land for purposes of ANILCA. “[P]ublic land” under ANILCA means (almost all) “lands, waters, and interests therein” the “title to which is in the United States.” 16 U. S. C. §3102(1)–(3). Because running waters cannot be owned, the United States does not have “title” to the Nation River in the ordinary sense. And under the Submerged Lands Act, it is the State of Alaska—not the United States—that holds “title to and ownership of the lands beneath [the River’s] navigable waters.” 43 U. S. C. §1311. The Service therefore argues that the United States has “title” to an “interest” in the Nation River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, which provides that when the Federal Government reserves public land, it can retain rights to the specific “amount of water” needed to satisfy the purposes of that reservation. See Cappaert v. United States, 426 U. S. 128, 138–141. But even assuming that the Service held such a right, the Nation River itself would not thereby become “public land” in the way the Service contends. Under ANILCA, the “public land” would consist only of the Federal Government’s specific “interest” in the River—i. e., its reserved water right. And that right, the Service agrees, merely allows it to protect waters in the park from depletion or diversion. The right could not justify applying the hovercraft rule on the Nation River, as that rule targets nothing of the kind. Pp. 12–15.

2. Non-public lands within Alaska’s national parks are exempt from the Park Service’s ordinary regulatory authority. Section 103(c) arose out of concern from the State, Native Corporations, and private individuals that ANILCA’s broadly drawn boundaries might subject their properties to Park Service rules. Section 103(c)’s first sentence therefore sets out which land within those new parks qualify as parkland—“[o]nly” the “public lands” within any system unit’s boundaries are “deemed” a part of that unit. By negative implication, non-public lands are “deemed” outside the unit. In other words, non-federally owned lands inside system units (on a map) are declared outside them (for the law). The effect of that exclusion, as Section 103(c)’s second sentence affirms, is to exempt non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations. That is, the Service’s rules will apply “solely” to public lands within the units. 16 U. S. C. §3103(c). And for that reason, the third sentence provides a kind of escape hatch—it allows the Service to acquire inholdings when it believes regulation of those lands is needed.

The Service’s alternative interpretation of Section 103(c) is unpersuasive. The provision’s second sentence, it says, means that if a Park Service regulation on its face applies “solely” to public lands, then the regulation cannot apply to non-public lands. But if instead the regulation covers public and non-public lands alike, then the second sentence has nothing to say: The regulation can indeed cover both. On that view, Section 103(c)’s second sentence is a mere truism, not any kind of limitation. It does nothing to exempt inholdings from any regulation that might otherwise apply. And because that is so, the Government’s reading also strips the first and third sentences of their core functions. The first sentence’s “deeming” has no point, since there is no reason to pretend that inholdings are not part of a park if they can still be regulated as parklands. And the third sentence’s acquisition option has far less utility if the Service has its full regulatory authority over lands the Federal Government does not own. This sort of statute-gutting cannot be squared with ANILCA’s text and context. Pp. 16–26.

3. Navigable waters within Alaska’s national parks—no less than other non-public lands—are exempt from the Park Service’s normal regulatory authority. The Service argues that, if nothing else, ANILCA must at least allow it to regulate navigable waters. The Act, however, does not readily allow the decoupling of navigable waters from other non-federally owned areas in Alaskan national parks. ANILCA defines “land” to mean “lands, waters, and interests therein,” §3102(1)–(3); so when it refers to “lands” in Section 103(c) (and throughout the Act) it means waters as well. Nothing in the few aquatic provisions to which the Service points conflicts with reading Section 103(c)’s regulatory exemption to cover navigable waters. The Government largely relies on the Act’s statements of purpose, but this Court’s construction leaves the Service with multiple tools to “protect” and “preserve” rivers in Alaska’s national parks, as those provisions anticipate. See, e. g., §§3181(j), 3191(b)(7). While such authority might fall short of the Service’s usual power, it accords with ANILCA’s “repeated[ ] recogni[tion]” that Alaska is “the exception, not the rule.” Sturgeon I., 577 U. S., at ___. Pp. 26–29.

872 F. 3d 927, reversed and remanded.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Sotomayor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).