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Sturgeon v. Frost

United States Supreme Court

March 26, 2019

JOHN STURGEON, PETITIONER
v.
BERT FROST, IN His official capacity AS ALASKA REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, ET AL.

          Argued November 5, 2018

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

         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.
Petitioner John Sturgeon traveled for decades by hovercraft up a stretch of the Nation River that lies within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve, a conservation system unit in Alaska. On one such trip, Park rangers informed him that the Service's rules prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters "located within [a park's] boundaries." 36 CFR §2.17(e). That regulation-issued under the Service's Organic Act authority-applies to parks nationwide without any "regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands." §1.2(a)(3). Sturgeon complied with the order, but shortly thereafter sought an injunction that would allow him to resume using his hovercraft on his accustomed route. The District Court and the Ninth Circuit denied him relief, interpreting Section 103(c) to limit only the Service's authority to impose Alaska-specific regulations on inholdings-not its authority to enforce nationwide regulations like the hovercraft rule. This Court granted review and rejected that ground for dismissal, but it remanded for consideration of two further questions: whether the Nation River "qualifies as 'public land for purposes of ANILCA," thus indisputably subjecting it to the Service's regulatory authority; and, if not, whether the Service could nevertheless "regulate Sturgeon's activities on the Nation River." Sturgeon v. Frost, 577 U.S.__, __-__(Sturgeon I). The Ninth Circuit never got past the first question, as it concluded that the Nation River was public land.

         Held:

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.
3. Navigable waters within Alaska's national parks-no less than other non-public lands-are exempt from the Park Service's normal regulatory authority. The Service argues that, if nothing else, ANILCA must at least allow it to regulate navigable waters. The Act, however, does not readily allow the decoupling of navigable waters from other non-federally owned areas in Alaskan national parks. ANILCA defines "land" to mean "lands, waters, and interests therein," §3102(1)-(3); so when it refers to "lands" in Section 103(c) (and throughout the Act) it means waters as well. Nothing in the few aquatic provisions to which the Service points conflicts with reading Section 103(c)'s regulatory exemption to cover navigable waters. The Government largely relies on the Act's statements of purpose, but this Court's construction leaves the Service with multiple tools to "protect" and "preserve" rivers in Alaska's national parks, as those provisions anticipate. See, e.g., §§31810, 3191(b)(7). While such authority might fall short of the Service's usual power, it accords with ANILCAs "repeatedf ] recognition]" that Alaska is "the exception, not the rule." Sturgeon I, 577 U.S., at__. Pp. 26-29.

         872 F.3d 927, reversed and remanded.

          KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GlNSBURG, J., joined.

          OPINION

          KAGAN JUSTICE.

         This Court first encountered John Sturgeon's lawsuit three Terms ago. See Sturgeon v. Frost, 577 U.S.__(2016) (Sturgeon I). As we explained then, Sturgeon hunted moose along the Nation River in Alaska for some 40 years. See id., at__(slip op., at 1). He traveled by hovercraft, an amphibious vehicle able to glide over land and water alike. To reach his favorite hunting ground, he would pilot the craft over a stretch of the Nation River that flows through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a unit of the federal park system managed by the National Park Service. On one such trip, park rangers informed Sturgeon that a Park Service regulation prohibits the use of hovercrafts on rivers within any federal preserve or park. Sturgeon complied with their order to remove his hovercraft from the Yukon-Charley, thus "heading home without a moose." Id., at__(slip op., at 6). But soon afterward, Sturgeon sued the Park Service, seeking an injunction that would allow him to resume using his hovercraft on his accustomed route. The lower courts denied him relief. This Court, though, thought there was more to be said. See id., at __-__(slip op., at 15-16).

         As we put the matter then, Sturgeon's case raises the issue how much "Alaska is different" from the rest of the country-how much it is "the exception, not the rule." Id., at__-__(slip op., at 13-14). The rule, just as the rangers told Sturgeon, is that the Park Service may regulate boating and other activities on waters within national parks-and that it has banned the use of hovercrafts there. See 54 U.S.C. §100751(b); 36 CFR §2.17(e) (2018). But Sturgeon claims that Congress created an Alaska-specific exception to that broad authority when it enacted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), 94 Stat. 2371, 16 U.S.C. §3101 et seq. In Alaska, Sturgeon argues, the Park Service has no power to regulate lands or waters that the Federal Government does not own; rather, the Service may regulate only what ANILCA calls "public land" (essentially, federally owned land) in national parks. And, Sturgeon continues, the Federal Government does not own the Nation River-so the Service cannot ban hovercrafts there. When we last faced that argument, we disagreed with the reason the lower courts gave to reject it. But we remanded the case for consideration of two remaining questions. First, does "the Nation River qualif[y] as 'public land' for purposes of ANILCA"? 577 U.S., at __(slip op., at 15). Second, "even if the [Nation] is not 'public land, '" does the Park Service have authority to "regulate Sturgeon's activities" on the part of the river in the Yukon-Charley? Id., at__(slip op., at 16). Today, we take up those questions, and answer both "no." That means Sturgeon can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose.

         I

         A

         We begin, as Sturgeon I did, with a slice of Alaskan history. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. It thereby acquired "[i]n a single stroke" 365 million acres of land-an area more than twice the size of Texas. Id., at__(slip op., at 2). You might think that would be enough to go around. But in the years since, the Federal Government and Alaskans (including Alaska Natives) have alternately contested and resolved and contested and ... so forth who should own and manage that bounty. We offer here a few highlights because they are the backdrop against which Congress enacted ANILCA. As we do so, you might catch a glimpse of some former-day John Sturgeons-who (for better or worse) sought greater independence from federal control and, in the process, helped to shape the current law.

         For 90 years after buying Alaska, the Federal Government owned all its land. At first, those living in Alaska-a few settlers and some 30, 000 Natives-were hardly aware of that fact. See E. Gruening, The State of Alaska 355 (1968). American citizens mocked the Alaska purchase as Secretary of State "Seward's Folly" and President Johnson's "Polar Bear Garden." They paid no attention to the new area, leading to an "era of total neglect." Id., at 31. But as Sturgeon I recounted, the turn of the century brought "newfound recognition of Alaska's economic potential." 577 U.S., at__(slip op., at 2). Opportunities to mine, trap, and fish attracted tens of thousands more settlers and sparked an emerging export economy. And partly because of that surge in commercial activity, the country's foremost conservationists-President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the fledgling Forest Service-took unprecedented action to protect Alaska's natural resources. In particular, Roosevelt (and then President Taft) prevented settlers from logging or coal mining on substantial acreage. See W. Borneman, Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land 240-241 (2003). Alaskans responded by burning Pinchot in effigy and, more creatively, organizing the "Cordova Coal Party"-a mass dumping of imported Canadian coal (instead of English tea) into the Pacific Ocean (instead of Boston Harbor). See ibid. The terms of future conflict were thus set: resource conservation vs. economic development, federal management vs. local control.

         By the 1950s, Alaskans hankered for both statehood and land-and Congress decided to give them both. In pressing for statehood, Alaska's delegate to the House of Representatives lamented that Alaskans were no better than "tenants upon the estate of the national landlord"; and Alaska's Governor (then a Presidential appointee) called on the country to "[e]nd American [c]olonialism." W. Everhart, The National Park Service 126-127 (1983) (Everhart). Ever more aware of Alaska's economic and strategic importance, Congress agreed the time for statehood had come. The 1958 Alaska Statehood Act, 72 Stat. 339, made Alaska the country's 49th State. And because the new State would need property-to propel private industry and create a tax base-the Statehood Act made a land grant too. Over the next 35 years, Alaska could select for itself 103 million acres of "vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved" federal land-an area totaling the size of California. §§6(a)-(b), 72 Stat. 340, as amended; see Everhart 127. And more: By incorporating the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, the Statehood Act gave Alaska "title to and ownership of the lands beneath navigable waters," such as the Nation River. 43 U.S.C. §1311; see §6(m), 72 Stat. 343. And a State's title to the lands beneath navigable waters brings with it regulatory authority over "navigation, fishing, and other public uses" of those waters. United States v. Alaska, 521 U.S. 1, 5 (1997). All told, the State thus emerged a formidable property holder.

         But the State's bonanza provoked land claims from Alaska Natives. Their ancestors had lived in the area for thousands of years, and they asserted aboriginal title to much of the property the State was now taking (and more besides). See Everhart 127. When their demands threatened to impede the trans-Alaska pipeline, Congress stepped in. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) extinguished the Natives' aboriginal claims. See 85 Stat. 688, as amended, 43 U.S.C. §1601 et seq. But it granted the Natives much in return. Under the law, corporations organized by groups of Alaska Natives could select for themselves 40 million acres of federal land-equivalent, when combined, to all of Pennsylvania. See §§1605, 1610-1615. So the Natives became large landowners too.

         Yet one more land dispute loomed. In addition to settling the Natives' claims, ANCSA directed the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) to designate, subject to congressional approval, 80 million more acres of federal land for inclusion in the national park, forest, or wildlife systems. See §1616(d)(2). The Secretary dutifully made his selections, but Congress failed to ratify them within the five-year period ANCSA had set. Rather than let the designations lapse, President Carter invoked another federal law (the 1906 Antiquities Act) to proclaim most of the lands (totaling 56 million acres) national monuments, under the National Park Service's aegis. See 577 U.S., at__(slip op., at 4). Many Alaskans balked. "[R]egard[ing] national parks as just one more example of federal interference," protesters demonstrated throughout the State and several thousand joined in the so-called Great Denali-McKinley Trespass. Everhart 129; see 577 U.S., at__(slip op., at 4). "The goal of the trespass," as Sturgeon I explained, "was to break over 25 Park Service rules in a two-day period." Ibid. One especially eager participant played a modern-day Paul Revere, riding on horseback through the crowd to deliver the message: "The Feds are coming! The Feds are coming!" Ibid, (internal quotation marks omitted).

         And so they were-but not in quite the way President Carter had contemplated. Responding to the uproar his proclamation had set off, Congress enacted a third major piece of legislation allocating land in Alaska. We thus reach ANILCA, the statute principally in dispute in this case, in which Congress set aside extensive land for national parks and preserves-but on terms different from those governing such areas in the rest of the country.

         B

         Starting with the statement of purpose in its first section, ANILCA sought to "balance" two goals, often thought conflicting. 16 U.S.C. §3101(d). The Act was designed to "provide Q sufficient protection for the national interest in the scenic, natural, cultural and environmental values on the public lands in Alaska." Ibid. "[A]nd at the same time," the Act was framed to "provide|] adequate opportunity for satisfaction of the economic and social needs of the State of Alaska and its people." Ibid. So if, as you continue reading, you see some tension within the statute, you are not mistaken: It arises from Congress's twofold ambitions.

         ANILCA set aside 104 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska for preservation purposes. See 577 U.S., at__(slip op., at 5). In doing so, the Act rescinded President Carter's monument designations. But it brought into the national park, forest, or wildlife systems millions more acres than even ANCSA had contemplated. The park system's share of the newly withdrawn land (to be administered, as usual, by the Park Service) was nearly 44 million acres-an amount that more than doubled the system's prior (nationwide) size. See Everhart 132. With that land, ANILCA created ten new national parks, monuments, and preserves-including the Yukon-Charley Preserve-and expanded three old ones. See §§410hh, 410hh-l. In line with the Park Service's usual terminology, ANILCA calls each such park or other area a "conservation system unit." §3102(4) ("The term . . . means any unit in Alaska of the National Park System"); see 54 U.S.C. §100102(6) (similar).

         In sketching those units' boundary lines, Congress made an uncommon choice-to follow "topographic or natural features," rather than enclose only federally owned lands. §3103(b); see Brief for Respondents 24 (agreeing that "ANILCA [is] atypical in [this] respect"). In most parks outside Alaska, boundaries surround mainly federal property holdings. "[E]arly national parks were carved out of a larger public domain, in which virtually all land" was federally owned. Sax, Helpless Giants: The National Parks and the Regulation of Private Lands, 75 Mich. L. Rev. 239, 263 (1976); see Dept. of Interior, Nat. Park Serv., Statistical Abstract 87 (2017) (Table 9) (noting that only 2 of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres are in non-federal hands). And even in more recently established parks, Congress has used gerrymandered borders to exclude most non-federal land. See Sax, Buying Scenery, 1980 Duke L. J. 709, 712, and n. 12. But Congress had no real way to do that in Alaska. Its prior cessions of property to the State and Alaska Natives had created a "confusing patchwork of ownership" all but impossible to draw one's way around. C. Naske & H. Slotnick, Alaska: A History 317 (3d ed. 2011). What's more, an Alaskan Senator noted, the United States might want to reacquire state or Native holdings in the same "natural areas" as reserved federal land; that could occur most handily if Congress drew boundaries, "wherever possible, to encompass" those holdings and authorized the Secretary to buy whatever lay inside. 126 Cong. Rec. 21882 (1980) (remarks of Sen. Stevens). The upshot was a vast set of so-called inholdings-more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land-that wound up inside Alaskan system units. See 577 U.S., at__-__(slip op., at 5-6).

         Had Congress done nothing more, those inholdings could have become subject to many Park Service rules- the same kind of "restrictive federal regulations" Alaskans had protested in the years leading up to ANILCA (and further back too). Id., at__(slip op., at 4). That is because the Secretary, acting through the Director of the Park Service, has broad authority under the National Park Service Organic Act (Organic Act), 39 Stat. 535, to administer both lands and waters within all system units in the country. See 54 U.S.C. §§100751, 100501, 100102. The Secretary "shall prescribe such regulations as [he] considers necessary or proper for the use and management of System units." §100751(a). And he may, more specifically, issue regulations concerning "boating and other activities on or relating to water located within System units." §100751(b). Those statutory grants of power make no distinctions based on the ownership of either lands or waters (or lands beneath waters).[1] And although the Park Service has sometimes chosen not to regulate non-federally owned lands and waters, it has also imposed major restrictions on their use. Rules about mining and solid-waste disposal, for example, apply to all lands within system units "whether federally or nonfederally owned." 36 CFR §6.2; see §9.2. And (of particular note here) the Park Service freely regulates activities on all navigable (and some other) waters "within [a park's] boundaries"- once more, "without regard to . . . ownership." §1.2(a)(3). So Alaska and its Natives had reason to worry about how the Park Service would regulate their lands and waters within the new parks.

         Congress thus acted, as even the Park Service agrees, to give the State and Natives "assurance that their [lands] wouldn't be treated just like" federally owned property. Tr. of Oral Arg. 50. (It is only-though this is quite a large "only"-the nature and extent of that assurance that is in dispute.) The key provision here is Section 103(c), which contains three sentences that may require some rereading. We quote it first in one block; then provide some definitions; then go over it again a bit more slowly. But still, you should expect to return to this text as you proceed through this opinion.

         Section 103(c) provides in full:

"Only those lands within the boundaries of any conservation system unit which are public lands (as such term is defined in this Act) shall be deemed to be included as a portion of such unit. No lands which, before, on, or after [the date of ANILCA's passage], are conveyed to the State, to any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units. If the State, a Native Corporation, or other owner desires to convey any such lands, the Secretary may acquire such lands in accordance with applicable law (including this Act), and any such lands shall become part of the unit, and be administered accordingly." §3103(c).

         Now for the promised definitions. The term "land," as found in all three sentences, actually-and crucially for this case-"means lands, waters, and interests therein." §3102(1). The term "public lands," in the first two sentences, then means "lands" (including waters and interests therein) "the title to which is in the United States"- except for lands selected for future transfer to the State or Native Corporations (under the Statehood Act or ANCSA). §3102(2), (3); see supra, at 4-5. "Public lands" are therefore most but not quite all lands (and again, waters and interests) that the Federal Government owns.

         Finally, to recap. As explained in Sturgeon I, "Section 103(c) draws a distinction between 'public' and 'non-public' lands within the boundaries of conservation system units in Alaska." 577 U.S., at __(slip op., at 14). Section 103(c)'s first sentence makes clear that only public lands (again, defined as most federally owned lands, waters, and associated interests) would be considered part of a system unit (again, just meaning a national park, preserve, or similar area). By contrast, state, Native, or private lands would not be understood as part of such a unit, even though they in fact fall within its geographic boundaries. Section 103(c)'s second sentence then expressly exempts all those non-public lands (the inholdings) from certain regulations-though exactly which ones, as will soon become clear, is a matter of dispute. And last, Section 103(c)'s third sentence enables the Secretary to buy any inholdings. If he does, the lands (because now public) become part of the park, and may be administered in the usual way-e.g., without the provision's regulatory exemption.

         C

         We can now return to John Sturgeon, on his way to a hunting ground alternatively dubbed "Moose Meadows" or "Sturgeon Fork." As recounted above, Sturgeon used to travel by hovercraft up a stretch of the Nation River that lies within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve. See supra, at 1. Until one day, three park rangers approached Sturgeon while he was repairing his steering cable and told him he was violating a Park Service rule. According to the specified regulation, "[t]he operation or use of hovercraft is prohibited" on navigable (and some other) waters "located within [a park's] boundaries," without any "regard to . . . ownership." 36 CFR §§2.17(e), 1.2(a)(3); see supra, at 2. That regulation, issued under the Secretary's Organic Act authority, applies on its face to parks across the country. See supra, at 8 (describing Organic Act). And Sturgeon did not doubt that the Nation River is a navigable water. But Sturgeon protested that in Alaska (even though nowhere else) the rule could not be enforced on a waterway-like, he said, the Nation River- that is not owned by the Federal Government. And when his objection got nowhere with the rangers (or with the Secretary, to whom he later petitioned), Sturgeon stopped using his hovercraft-but also brought this lawsuit, based on ANILCAs Section 103(c).

         In Sturgeon I, we rejected one ground for dismissing Sturgeon's case, but remanded for consideration of two further questions. The District Court and Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had held that even assuming the Nation River is non-public land, the Park Service could enforce its hovercraft ban there. See 2013 WL 5888230 (Oct. 30, 2013); 768 F.3d 1066 (2014). Those two courts interpreted Section 103(c) to limit only the Service's authority to impose Alaska-specific regulations on such lands-not its authority to apply nationwide regulations like the hovercraft rule. But we viewed that construction as "implausible." 577 U.S., at__(slip op., at 15). ANILCA, we reasoned, "repeatedly recognizes that Alaska is different." Id., at__(slip op., at 13); see id., at__(slip op., at 14) (The Act "reflect[s] the simple truth that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule"). Yet the lower courts' reading would "prevent the Park Service from recognizing Alaska's unique conditions"-thus producing a "topsyturvy" result. Ibid. Still, we thought two hurdles remained before Sturgeon could take his hovercraft out of storage. We asked the Court of Appeals to decide whether the Nation River "qualifies as 'public land' for purposes of ANILCA," thus indisputably subjecting it to the Service's regulatory authority. Id., at__(slip op., at 15). And if the answer was "no," we asked the Ninth Circuit to address whether the Service, on some different theory from the one just dispatched, could still "regulate Sturgeon's activities on the Nation River." Id., at__(slip op., at 16).

         The Ninth Circuit never got past the first question because it concluded that the Nation River is "public land[.]" See 872 F.3d 927, 936 (2017). The court explained that it was bound by three circuit decisions construing that term, when used in ANILCA's provisions about subsistence fishing, as including all navigable waters. Id., at ...


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