Previous Article
Next Article

Your authoritative, multi-channel network for natural resources and environmental information since 1989 – by practioners for practitioners.

Line Spacing+- AFont Size+- Print This Article Back To Homepage

Supreme Court Addresses Federally Reserved Water Rights, National Alaska Lands Act and Scope of Park Service’s Authority over the Nation River

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the National Park Service (Park Service) may not apply a regulation banning hovercraft use on navigable waters within national parks to the Nation River in Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Preserve (Preserve). The Court’s unanimous decision overturned a prior ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the Park Service, whereby the Ninth Circuit held that the reserved water rights doctrine permitted the Park Service to exercise regulatory authority over the state-owned Nation River in accordance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Sturgeon v. Frost, et al., 872 F.3d 927 (9th Cir. 2017). The Court’s decision addresses the extent of federal regulatory over national parks in the State of Alaska under ANILCA and the nature of interests retained by the federal government under the reserved water rights doctrine. [Sturgeon v. Frost, et al., ___U.S.___, 139 S. Ct. 1066 (U.S. Mar 26, 2019).]

Factual and Statutory Background

The dispute before the Court arose when Park Service rangers in the Preserve informed John Sturgeon, a hunter traveling by hovercraft on a stretch of the Nation River leading to moose hunting grounds, that Park Service regulations prohibit the use of hovercraft on navigable waters located within the boundaries of national parkland (Regulation). 36 C.F.R. § 2.17(e). The rangers ordered Sturgeon to remove his hovercraft from the Preserve. Sturgeon complied with the order and subsequently filed an action for an injunction against the Park Service, claiming that the Regulation could not be enforced on the Nation River under § 103(c) of ANILCA. 16 U.S.C. 3103(c).

The Secretary of the Interior, through the Director of the Park Service, issued the Regulation pursuant to the National Park Service Organic Act, 39 Stat. 535 (Organic Act), which allows the Park Serviceto regulate both lands and waters within all national park system units in the United States, without regard to ownership. See, 54 U.S.C. §§ 100751, 100501, 100102. Specifically, the Organic Act allows the Park Service to issue rules thought “necessary and proper” for “System units,” and that the Park Service may prescribe rules regarding activities on “water located within system units.” 57 U.S.C. §§ 100751(a), 100751(b). While ordinarily the Regulation would fall within the broad regulatory authority granted by the Organic Act, ANILCA alters thePark Service’s usual authority with respect to national parks in Alaska, such as the Preserve. As noted in the Court’s decision, “if Sturgeon lived in any other state, his suit would not have a prayer of success.” Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1081.

ANILCA set aside certain federal land in Alaska for conservation purposes, and divided such land into “conservation system units” that became part of the National Park System. 54 U.S.C. § 100102(6). Unlike most national park territory, ANILCA created conservation system units in Alaska with boundaries that follow natural features of the land rather than boundaries drawn to encompass only federal property. This approach resulted in the inclusion of an unusual amount of non-federally owned property within Alaskan national parks, referred to as “inholdings,” which elicited concerns from the state and native Alaskans prior to ANILCA’s enactment regarding the Park Service’s regulatory powers over the inholdings. Partially in response to such concerns, ANILCA includes both a goal of protecting the national interest in public lands in Alaska as well as a goal of satisfying the economic and social needs of the people of Alaska. 16 U.S.C. § 3101(d).

In its discussion of § 103(c) of ANILCA, the language on which Sturgeon’s claim relies, the Court’s decision explains that the legislative history and stated purposes of ANILCA show that Congress intended to assure the state and native Alaskans that their inholdings would not be treated the same as other federal property. Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1076. Section 103(c) of ANILCA provides that only “public lands” are deemed included as part of a “conservation system unit” over which normal Park Service regulatory authority extends, and that no lands conveyed to the state, a Native Corporation or any private party are subject to the regulations “applicable solely to public lands within such units.” 16 U.S.C. § 3103(c). Sturgeon argued that Nation River does not constitute “public lands” subject to federal regulation under § 103(c) of ANILCA; thus, the Park Service did not have the authority to enforce the Regulation on Nation River. Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1077.

Procedural History

Previous rulings by the U.S. District Court and Ninth Circuit upheld the application of the Regulation to the portion of the Nation River within the Preserve. The Ninth Circuit determined that the Nation River qualified as “public land” under ANILCA due to the implied reservation of water rights retained by the federal government pursuant to the reserved water rights doctrine as interpreted by prior holdings of the Ninth Circuit by which that court was bound. Sturgeon v. Frost, et al., 872 F.3d 927 (9th Cir. 2017).

Following the lower court decisions in favor of the Park Service, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to examine whether: 1) the Nation River constitutes “public land” for purposes of ANILCA, and 2) if not, would the Park Servicestill have the authority to regulate Sturgeon’s use of the hovercraft on the Nation River.

The Supreme Court’s Decision


‘Public Land’ under ANILCA and Federal Reserved Water Rights

The Court determined that Nation River is not “public land” as defined under ANILCA.Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1079. As defined in ANILCA, “public lands” includes “lands, waters, and interests therein” to which the United States has title, except for certain lands selected for future transfer to the state or a Native Corporation. 16 U.S.C. § 3102(1)(2)(3). Accordingly, the Court reasoned that Nation River is non-public land because title cannot be held to running water, and the state owns the land beneath the Nation River as a result of the Submerged Lands Act, which vested title to the lands beneath navigable waters in the United States to the states in which such navigable waters are located. Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1078.

The Park Service argued that even if United States did not have title to the water flowing in Nation River or the land beneath it, but the United States has “title” to an “interest in the river under the reserved water rights doctrine, because ANILCA requires that waters within the land set aside by ANILCA be safeguarded from “depletion and diversion.” Id. At 1079. The reserved water rights doctrine provides that:

“[W]hen the Federal Government withdraws its land from the public domain and reserves it for a federal purpose, the Government, by implication, reserves appurtenant water then unappropriated to the extent needed to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.” Cappert v. United States, 46 U.S. 128 (1976).

Dismissing the Park Service’s contention, the Court explained that the reserved water rights doctrine merely permits the federal government to use (by withdrawing or maintaining) certain waters it does not own, and that such rights do not convey title. Sturgeon, 139 S. Ct. at 1079. Further, the Court explained that any federal right to Nation River under the reserved water rights doctrine would be limited, and if the right related to safeguarding against depletion or diversion as suggested by the Park Service, that purpose would not support the application of the Regulation to Nation River. Id.

ANILCA Exemption from Ordinary Park Service Authority

After concluding that Nation River constitutes non-public land for purposes of ANILCA, the Court further held that § 103(c) of ANILCA means that the Park Service does not have authority to enforce the Regulation on Nation River, because § 103(c) generally exempts non-public lands from the ordinary regulatory authority of the Park Service. Id. at 1081. The Court rejected the Park Service’s assertion that language of § 103(c) stating that non-federally owned lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units” should be interpreted to mean that non-public lands are exempt only from regulations specific to public lands, but not from rules that apply generally. Id. at 1082. The Court noted that if the Park Service’s interpretation of this language were correct, it would mean that the sentence does “nothing but state the obvious.” Id. at 1083. Further, the Court noted that the Park Service’s construction would severely impair the core function of the third sentence of § 103(c), which provides that inholdings acquired by the federal government become part of a conservation unit at such time and may be administered as other federally-owned lands. Id.

ANILCA and Navigable Waters

The Court also rejected the Park Service’s argument that the “overall statutory scheme” of ANILCA at least gave it the ability to regulate navigable waters, finding that navigable waters are similarly exempt from the ordinary regulatory authority of the Park Service pursuant to § 103(c) of ANILCA. Id. at 1086. The Park Service specifically cited statements regarding the protection of rivers in ANILCA’s general statement of purposes and in sections regarding specific conservation units formed thereunder. Id. Nonetheless, the Court found no reason to treat navigable waters differently than other non-federally owned lands under ANILCA, especially since the definition of “land” set forth in ANILCA specifically includes “waters.” Id. In its concluding discussion, the Court’s decision emphasizes that ANILCA provides the Park Service with alternate methods for safeguarding rivers in Alaskan national parks, including the regulation of lands flanking the rivers or at the very least, purchasing the submerged lands under a river and regulating it as part of the federally-owned conservation unit pursuant to third sentence of § 103(c). Id.

 Conclusion and Implications

Though the much of the Court’s ruling applies only to the Park Service’s regulatory authority over national park territory in Alaska, the Court’s holding as to the nature of rights held by the United States under the reserved water rights doctrine is more broadly applicable. The Court’s decision confirms that reserved water rights relate only to the use of water and do not represent an interest in which “title” can be held within the common understanding of the term. The Court’s decision further establishes that the reserved water rights doctrine does not grant absolute authority over a particular waterway; rather, the government may take or maintain only the amount of water required for the purpose of the land reservation giving rise to reserved water rights.

(Andrew D. Foley, David D. Boyer)