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State sovereignty challenge at root of Yukon River hovercraft case

Craig Medred

A federal magistrate might have rejected arguments the state of Alaska -- not the federal government -- holds sway over the Yukon River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve north of Fairbanks, but U.S. District Court Judge Russell Holland says he's willing to listen.

Holland on Feb. 14 issued an order recognizing Alaska's interest in a case challenging federal authority over state-owned navigable rivers and submerged lands. The case hinges on whether state or federal officials get to say who does what on the navigable waters within the Yukon-Charley, and the state believes it has the ideal test case in the form of a former state forester who owns a hovercraft.

John Sturgeon has been using that boat to hunt moose in the Interior Alaska preserve for years. The National Park Service, however, says it wants him out of Yukon-Charley because hovercraft, for reasons that remain unclear, are not allowed in national parks. Who allows what on the Yukon has been a hot topic since park rangers confronted 70-year-old riverboat owner Jim Wilde in fall 2010 and stuck a shotgun in his face after he refused to immediately comply with their orders.

Rangers had baited Wilde to their boat -- apparently adrift and possibly in trouble mid-river -- then motioned him to stop and told him they needed to perform a safety inspection. Wilde cursed at the rangers and took off. At a later trial, Wilde testified he was headed to shore to beach his boat so he could talk to the rangers in a safe location. The rangers who gave chase said they believed he was fleeing, though where has never been clear. There wasn't much upstream but the desolate wilderness of Canada's Yukon Territory.

And Wilde never got close to the border. He went to shore. Almost as soon as he beached his boat, rangers took him down, handcuffed him and hauled him off to a faraway jail in Fairbanks in one of the more bizarre moments of law enforcement in Alaska history. Wilde was eventually charged with refusing to obey federal officials and more. He fought the case in court only to be found guilty by the federal magistrate who refused the old man a jury trial and rejected state arguments that the Park Service was acting without proper legal authority.

Wilde attorney Bill Satterberg in early January announced that he is appealing the case, and said he is hopeful of state support. Satterberg's comments came only weeks before Holland announced he'd listen to state lawyers who have come to the aid of Sturgeon.

Sturgeon, now a business executive in Anchorage, last year filed a lawsuit challenging the Park Service's authority to regulate activities on state-owned waters within national parks and preserves in Alaska. The suit came about after rangers told him he could no longer use that hovercraft on the Yukon near where Wilde was arrested. Sturgeon had for decades been using the vehicle, which rides above the water on a cushion of air, to travel in the area.

Park officials couldn't really explain why hovercraft are different from other vessels allowed to traverse the Yukon, but said federal regulations ban them. State law treats them like boats. Sturgeon noted that and sued, saying the federal government lacks the authority to tell an Alaska resident what kind of boat to use on a state waterway.

The Statehood Act granted the state title to all navigable waters in Alaska, and later, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) indicated Park Service regulations cannot be applied to state land or water that lies within national parks and preserves.

The Park Service, however, has a different take on ANILCA. It believes the act grants it the authority to do what is necessary to protect parks and preserves, and the agency considers keeping Sturgeon's hovercraft at bay part of the protection. The case has now escalated into a federal-state matter.

"My administration will continue to aggressively push back on federal overreach, and efforts to control Alaskans' ability to travel on rivers and waterways," Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said in a press release issued by the state. "I am pleased the court recognized Alaska's strong interest in this issue over the objections of the federal government to our participation in the case."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com