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Appellate Court Upholds NPS Right To Regulate Watercraft In Yukon-Charley Rivers


The National Park Service, not the state of Alaska, has regulatory authority over rivers and streams that run through the park system, a court ruled Monday/NPS

A tribunal from a federal appellate court has upheld the National Park Service's right to regulate watercraft on waters that pass through park units. The ruling, stemming from a case from Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, rejected the claim that the state of Alaska had authority over the Nation River even though it flowed through the preserve.

The lawsuit against the Park Service was filed in 2007 by John Sturgeon, who was using a hovercraft on the river to reach a hunting area above the preserve. Park Service regulations ban the use of hovercraft, and rangers warned the man about that prohibition after he beached his hovercraft on a gravel bar in the river.

Mr. Sturgeon, joined by the state of Alaska, sued the Park Service. He had argued that in passing the Alaska Native Interest Lands Conservation Act, Congress took away the Park Service’s authority over rivers and lakes within Alaska’s national park sites.  After the 9th Circuit sided with the National Park Service, he appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did not rule on the issue, but sent it back to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration.

On Monday, three judges from the circuit court again upheld the National Park Service's authority. 

"The panel held that ANILCA section 103(c) did not limit the Park Service from applying the hovercraft ban on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charlie preserve," the judges held in their ruling. "The United States had an implied reservation of water rights, rendering the river public lands. On remand from the United States Supreme Court, the panel again concluded that the federal government properly regulated hovercraft use on the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley preserve."

Some viewed the case as a "monumental conflict between state and federal rights" because of the interlacing of private and state lands within the federal landscape in Alaska. 

“Today’s decision affirms that the Park Service are the best stewards for our country’s national parks," said Jim Adams, Alaska Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve was created to protect rivers, as were many other parks and preserves in Alaska. The Park Service must have a say in what people can do on rivers and lakes within parkland boundaries to protect these special places for all Americans and for future generations.”

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This is essential. Great. It is true that everywhere  riverways and the lands that border their banks are the vital wildlife corridors and critical habitat.

But, these riverways are even more crucial in Alaska. Life is stretched thin in many of the national park lands in Alaska. For examole we find the caribou routes follow the rivers, where "barren-ground caribou" and "barren-ground grizzlies" must work hard to find the nutrients, the energy, to survive in a harsh country. The rivers bring migratory fisheries as well, and those fish bring essential protein to a landscape otherwise barren indeed. 

Yukon Charley Rivers as well as the other parks in AK have strong statements of congressional intent in the 1980 law that reinforced the Carter Monuments or expanded most of the older parks. Every one emphasizes the need to protect the waters and the habitat. Congress would have demanded none of this direction to the Park Service if they were not certain their is an underlying federal interest on all public lands.  How could the NPS do the people's business if the most important part of all the parks had no park protection at all?

Imagine your camping trip-of-a-lifetime up the crystal-clear Charley River wgen a hovercraft of 120 decibels comes blasting through? Imagine the state opening a river to mining in the middle of those clean waters?

But more than that, this case goes directly to the State's insistence that it has sole authority to bait bears, kill wolf pups in dens, and kill off whole packs of collared wolves who have been the subject of scientific study for generations?

Both cases involve the State contention that the Statehood Act gave the State total control over wildlife and rivers on lands owned by all the people of America.



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