John Sturgeon v. Bert Frost, in his official capacity as Alaska Regional Director of the National Park Service
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.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
STURGEON v. FROST, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ALASKA REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
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.
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.
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.