The Supreme Court took aim on Wednesday at a U.S. government regulation that banned an Alaska moose hunter from riding his hovercraft through a conservation area in a case that touches upon simmering tensions over federal control of public lands.
Long-time hunter John Sturgeon contends the federal government cannot prevent him from travelling through the federal Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve on his hovercraft to access moose-hunting grounds.
At issue is whether the U.S. National Park Service has the authority to issue a regulation than bans hovercraft use, a legal question that could have implications for other park service regulations including limits on oil and gas extraction.
Sturgeon was traveling on the Nation River in 2007 when park service rangers detained him and said he could not use his hovercraft. He contends the regulation has no force because the river is owned by the state of Alaska, which allows hovercraft.
People in some parts of the country, especially the West, have complained about too much federal control of public lands. The cause was embraced by armed protesters who on Jan. 2 took over buildings at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and continue to occupy them.
The state of Alaska filed court papers supporting Sturgeon, saying that in a 1980 law the U.S. Congress specifically limited park service jurisdiction over land within a conservation area that is not federally owned.
The rule banning hovercraft, which travel on a cushion of air, has been in place since 1996.
During Wednesday's oral arguments, none of the nine justices expressed agreement with the rationale of an 2014 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backing the federal government.
The appeals court said park service regulations are limited in scope only if they are Alaska-specific. That would mean national regulations like the hovercraft ban could be interpreted more expansively to cover land within a conservation area not federally owned.
"It's a ridiculous interpretation, is it not?" Justice Samuel Alito of the ruling.
The justices appeared to struggle with how to resolve the case. Justice Stephen Breyer hinted at this frustration when, while asking about the complicated law in question, he broke off and said amid chuckles in the courtroom: "Who drafted this?"
Breyer suggested the case be returned to lower courts. Alaska said the ruling could impact park service efforts to regulate oil and gas extraction on its land in that state and elsewhere.
A ruling is due by the end of June.