Science in the SCOTUS: hovercraft in Alaska

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?


The Raw Story » Sarah’s getting a gun

Raw Story reported today that the NRA has decided to show Sarah Palin some ballistic love, in appreciation for her support of gun rights, by delivering to her a custom-made M4 assault rifle:

via The Raw Story » Sarah’s getting a gun.

The NRA announced Monday that for her service to gun owners, it will give Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a white, M4 semi-automatic with a custom, .50 caliber Beowulf chamber.

On the other hand, the Anchorage Daily News reports that, much like Sarah herself:

A military weapons specialist tells the Monitor the semiautomatic rifle is “sweet” but says it’s not suitable for hunting — or anything else, really.


Sarah Palin Hates the Media and Lobbyists SO MUCH!

. . . er, well. . . maybe not so much. . .

The LA Times is reporting that Sarah Palin met with lobbyists for oil and natural gas companies all the time but never with environmentalists, native groups or anyone else that might have gotten in the way of making money off Alaska’s natural resources.  And oh, yeah: she used to bake cookies for journalists and call them on their birthdays.

At the risk of sounding like I support Sarah Palin, I think it only natural that a state like Alaska be a little corrupted by money.  After all, if it weren’t for all the monied interests down here in the Lower 49 greedily gobbling up their resources, Alaska would be a big, frozen welfare state.  But don’t lie about it.


AK Troopergate Report: DFE Roundup

I’ve just finished up an article on the Troopergate matter in Alaska involving our favourite girl, Sarah Palin.  For those of you who need a refresher on what exactly is going on, this article should probably serve as a good Clift’s Notes version.  And there are also a few other gems I’ve found around the net that haven’t made it into wide circulation, such as this one:

» Palin Attempts to Circumnavigate Troopergate Investigation || DFE News Roundup » DFE News Updates

Specifically, the Seattle Times is reporting that Todd Palin’s affidavit states that the alleged disagreement between the Palins and Monegan was over, among other things, the use of Alaska’s state trooper airplane. Todd Palin claimed that “It seemed that whenever Sarah needed this plane, it was unavailable.” Palin suggested that Monegan may have been retaliating for the Palin’s decision to sell the plane often used by the Public Safety department. This was the plane Sarah Palin has insisted on the stump was sold by her on eBay.


Dick Cheney’s Hunting Legacy Lives On

If you think Dick Cheney “hunting” birds that were tied down till moments before he arrived was bad, wait till you see what Sarah Palin encouraged in Alaska: hunting wolves in the winter from airplanes.

A warning: the following advertisement is not something you want to watch if you’re sensitive to animal cruelty. I’m not carrying it in my VodPod video gallery because I cannot make such a warning in that case.


Let me say that I can think of reasons people might want to justify such hunting methods.  For example, over-population of wolves.  We’ve had similar controversies in Rochester over the deer over-population problem at Durand Eastman Park, and deer don’t kill our livestock or our family dog.

However, there doesn’t seem to be any real indication that the wolf population of Alaska is really a problem.  Rather, there is a history of over-management of the wolf population that extends well into the past, and the policy is really more vestigal than a genuinely modern wildlife program.  Alaska meanwhile has the largest remaining population of grey wolves in the United States which it threatens to destroy with this backward program.

Personally, while I respect and often agree with animal rights advocates, I’m not shy about the need for hunting in some situations.  Neither do I have an objection to hunting as a recreational sport.  But where we’re from here in Upstate New York, there is a sense of basic fairness to the way we go about hunting.  For all the technology we have to employ in the task of hunting, ultimately, the expectation is that it comes down to one man (or woman), one gun and one animal.  You aren’t allowed to hunt before dawn; you aren’t allowed to shine lights at deer to stun them into immobility.  You certainly are not allowed to circle them in a plane and keep taking shots till you hit them.


Bridge to Nowhere: A Cost Analysis and Local Perspective

Just a quick note early on a Saturday afternoon about Sarah Palin’s Bridge to Nowhere and what it cost.  Setting aside the question of earmarks as policy, I’m just interested in discussing the price tag.  The proposed earmark was to be a total of $400 million dollars.  So, how much does it cost to build a bridge in the United States, on average?

That’s not an easy question to answer for a number of reasons.  For one, cost of doing business varies from state to state.  Another problem is that no two bridges are exactly alike, either in form or function.  But it is instructive to note that the entire U.S. Department of Transportation budget for building bridges across the whole of the country is only $5 billion dollars.  Equally instructive is the fact that the Frederick Douglass – Susan B. Anthony Bridge here in Rochester – a national award winning bridge in New York State, by the way – was built for a mere $38 million dollars.

Again in fairness, the Bridge to Nowhere was a considerably more grand project than the relatively modest spanning of the Genesee River.  The Gravina Island Bridge was slated to be higher than the Brooklyn Bridge and longer than the Golden Gate.  It was required to be so because commercial fishing boats needed to get under the bridge and the span is the narrowest point between the two bodies of land.

But to put it all together, 38 million dollars gets you an award winning bridge in New York State that carries an average of 77,000 cars a day.  But in Alaska – which has a cost of living surprisingly similar to New York – you need $400 million dollars to build a bridge for 50 people.


Ted Stevens’ Unqualified Support

Tell me if you can spot the boo-boo in Ted Stevens’ statement about Sarah Palin and the Bridge to Nowhere:

Stevens: No ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ Advocacy by Palin | The Trail |

“I don’t remember her ever campaigning for it. As a matter of fact, she was very critical of it at the time. And she took the money and did not use it for the bridge, so you’re wrong, as far as I’m concerned,” Stevens said today.

Uh. Yeah, Ted? It’s not the bridge we object to. It’s the money. She kept the money.


God Bless Alaska!

Political Animal is picking up the story of Sarah Palin’s connection to the Alaska Independence Party, which is dedicated to the establishment of an independant Alaskan nation, if you can believe it.  This is the kind of thing you might have expected a vetting process to have eliminated.  If there was one, which there clearly was not.


Command Experience

TPM has the video of a feisty Campbell Brown nailing McCain spokesman Tucker Brown to the wall on the “Experience Question” as it relates to the remarkable selection of Governor Sarah Palin as Vice Presidential nominee.  In an effort to defend the selection, Brown (Tuck, not Campbell) says that being in command of the National Guard serves as military command experience.  Certainly, this is true.  But when Campbell presses him on what decisions Palin has ever had to make, pointing out that equipping the troops is not the governor’s job, Tucker responds with this:

Actually, Campbell they do.  On a factual basis, they certainly do.  In Alaska, if you have any sort of emergency as things are happening in your state, the National Guard is under the command of the governor.

Fair enough.  In Alaska and elsewhere, if there are state emergencies (read: not national emergencies, in which case, the Army takes over), the governor is responsible for deploying the National Guard to respond.  So, how many times has this been necessary in the two years Sarah Palin has been governor?

According to Google News, not once.


Update: whoops!  Messed up that video link.  It’s been corrected, now.