One guy moose hunting in Alaska decided to take out his hovercraft. Somehow, this one event becomes a case before the Supreme Court that could have huge impacts for the environment and the definition of sovereignty between states, the Federal government and its citizens. It’s hard to fathom how one moose hunter in Alaska could suddenly become important to those of us in Rochester, NY. But as it turns out, he is.
John Sturgeon is by all appearances a pretty ordinary Alaska resident. His soft-spoken and respectful words in the Court make him seem like a pretty likeable guy. He hunts moose in Alaska, which is not at all controversial or illegal. And like any hunter, he takes what advantage he can – when he can – to get within shooting distance of his quarry. His choice one day eight years ago was to ride a hovercraft, which has the advantage of being able to cross rivers as easily as flat land.
His hovercraft broke down while he was out and two men approached to see what was going on. According to reports, the three men interacted for about a half an hour before the two strangers identified themselves as rangers. It was then that they informed Mr. Sturgeon that the hovercraft was not permitted to be used on Federal lands.
In Rochester, what is public and what is private land is rarely all that much in dispute, save perhaps for a stretch here or there where a park backs up to a private residence. But out west, questions abound. Over hundreds of acres of lands. New York State is about 12% government protected land; in Alaska that number is 61%. And it is the question of whose authority – federal or state – governs the land on which Mr. Sturgeon was hunting that is the problem.
In excellent reporting at Alaska Public Radio, the issue Justices seem to be getting hung up on is the word “solely.” Specifically, that the stewardship of the land that Mr. Sturgeon was hunting on is a bit of a cypher. What seems to have started as a sharing plan between state and federal agencies has devolved into a regulatory quagmire. The question of whether or not a hovercraft is permitted on that land depends entirely on the subtle distinctions in the code.
But if issues of jurisprudence and sovereignty are what complicate the case, they are not the only issues at stake. The responsibility with which we’ve entrusted our Federal government is to maintain a healthy environment within the preserves they manage. That charge is not about the simple management of a park for our recreation: it is about maintaining a pristine wilderness that we squander at our peril. Mr. Sturgeon himself benefits from those efforts, as evidenced by the fact that he’s hunting there at all.
Protecting the land means having clear laws and regulations about what is and what is not allowed to be used within the preserves. But in this case, there isn’t even consensus on what the federal preserves are. In such a case where the land is not claimed by any private party, it’s in the interest of science and our environment to interpret those rules broadly. Better that regulations within those territories be over-broad than under-cautious.
On the opposite side of science’s interests in this case are the interests of the State of Alaska and it’s residents. Those residents and elected leaders of Alaska can rightly ask why their regulation should be or has to be inferior to those of the Federal government? It becomes increasingly clear to we in the East that the Bundys of Malheur fame represent an ugly, violent inflection on what is a common sentiment in the West. And this case represents a much softer tone, but it’s no less urgent.
It’s also hard to escape the seemingly-tricky behavior of the park rangers in this case. Here in Rochester, police wear uniforms. You can ask for their badge numbers. But in Alaska, park rangers just look like bros? Walking in the woods? It may not be central to the case, but the idea that a cop sidles up next to you and raps with you for half an hour, then whips out a badge seems like entrapment, somehow. Mr. Sturgeon wasn’t hitting up a hooker. He was hunting.
There’s no clear indication that the Court prefers one argument over the other. There’s no indication that they were about to get into a Clash of the Titans fight over the heart and soul of the Constitution, either. But an empty seat on the Supreme Court could mean a year or more of ambiguity, into which who knows what manner of protest might pour?
With only eight Justices, it’s still possible that the Court can come to an agreeable compromise and close the case. But if everyone plays by their appointment-ordained roles, this thing doesn’t go anywhere. In the interim, do hovercraft sales skyrocket in Alaska? Along with beef jerky?