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?

There are many ways in which the sudden and suddenly-political death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has the potential to impact the ordinary lives of every citizen. So far, no one has declared an upside, which is a statement unto itself. We here at DFE decided to take a look from the perspective we know best.

There are a number of cases either before the Supreme Court right now, possibly held up over the threatened year of inaction between now and Election Day, or heard but not yet ruled on. Many of those either rely on the legal interpretation of science or affect interests of the scientific community.

One big story that’s not really getting a lot of play in mainstream channels is the fate of the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan is the Obama Administration’s EPA plan for cutting emissions at power plants. Power plant hydrocarbon emissions make up a substantial 40% of the total for the United States. The Obama Administration plans to leave as its environmental legacy a system aimed at cutting those emissions by 2030.

But the bombshell from just a week and a half ago was that the Supreme Court ordered the program halted pending a hearing in the Court. That hearing could be pending for quite some time if Republicans make good with their post-election nomination plans. And if a Democrat wins the White House, they may find some new excuse to stall longer.

The Clean Power Plan is a fairly modest proposal that doesn’t even set the goal of the program for another four years. It stipulates that emissions in 2030 will not be more than 16% less than those in 2020. Legally loopy enough for you? Well, get ready for the reason the SCOTUS put the Clean Power Plan on hold:

The various parties challenging the Clean Power Plan, which include multiple states and energy companies, raise several disagreements with how the EPA has interpreted its own authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act. The most difficult question presented by this case, however, isalso the most absurd. A quarter-century ago, Congress enacted two conflicting amendments to the Clean Air Act. One of these amendments arguably prevents the EPA from moving forward with the Clean Power Plan, the other does not.

It is as if Schrödinger’s cat were written into the United States Code. The cat is both alive and dead. The Clean Power Plan is both legal and illegal.

In other words, there is nothing about the letter of the law that is unconstitutional. This is only a matter of which cat gets to exist, based on neither random chance nor on cosmic coincidence. Purely – exclusively – based on politics. And now the politics of the Supreme Court may be changing. Will be changing, one way or the other.