03/28/2019

By Doug Burdin

SCI Senior Litigation Counsel

A lone man, who also is a member of Safari Club International, has taken on the federal government — and won! 

The issue? Whether he could use his hovercraft to reach a favored moose hunting area in Alaska. 

The problem? The river was within a National Preserve, run by the National Park Service, which prohibited such use. 

The approach? Get some help from SCI and others and embark on a 12-year court battle with the Feds. 

The result? The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in favor of SCI member John Sturgeon and he can gas-up his craft and go hunting. 

The case, originally brought in federal court in Alaska, challenged the National Park Service’s decision to prohibit Sturgeon, and others, from operating hovercraft on waters running through National Preserves in Alaska. 

The case has moved up and down the federal court system.  In an earlier phase of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s original basis for ruling against Sturgeon but sent the case back to the lower courts.  In that earlier phase, SCI filed two amicus briefs in support of Sturgeon.

When Sturgeon suffered a second defeat in the lower courts, he took the long shot of seeking a second Supreme Court review of his lawsuit.  Against the odds, the Court agreed to hear his case.  SCI filed another supportive amicus brief, focusing on the adverse impact to hunting opportunities in Alaska created by the NPS prohibition. 

SCI’s participation in the case demonstrated that the Supreme Court’s ruling would not only affect the ability of one man to use his hovercraft on the waters of a single National Preserve but would impact the access of many hunters seeking numerous types of game in Preserves throughout Alaska. 

Although Sturgeon suffered numerous setbacks in the lower courts, he and those supporting him refused to give up.  Their determination paid off.  The Supreme Court ruled not once but twice in his favor—a result few individuals have achieved.  While the case is specific to Alaska, the ruling affects access to all federal land in Alaska and deters federal overreach elsewhere.     

Maybe Sturgeon didn’t know what he was getting into 12 years ago.  But hopefully, as he motors toward his favorite moose hunting spot later this year, it will feel like it was all worth it.