The Supremes and Wilderness

Keep your fingers crossed that the U.S. Supreme Court resists undermining the natural integrity of our national parks and federally designated wilderness areas.

That is because the highest tribunal in the land has agreed to hear on appeal a case, which if reversed, could conceivably wreak havoc on protected wilderness. Hence, let's trust that a majority of the justices uphold the unanimous lower court ruling. The Ninth Circuit Court held that the National Park Service (NPS) had the authority to bar a plaintiff hunter from using his hover craft to mow down moose on a state-owned section of the Nation River. That was because the state segment was inside the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska.

NPS justified the ban on the grounds that the hover craft use was incompatible with the purpose and wilderness values of the surrounding National Preserve. The agency cited federal statutory language to legitimize its control over activity on a state inholding. Frankly, acceding to the hunter's petition would be turning a wilderness preserve into a shooting gallery--at least one hopes the Supreme Court will see it that way.

Undaunted by his lower court defeat, John Sturgeon, the hunter, continues to argue that the NPS regulation does not apply because the six mile portion of the river in question, though smack dab in the middle of the Preserve, is owned by the state of Alaska. Alaskan authorities agreed. They were not happy taking a backseat to the federal government in controlling state-owned territory and joined Sturgeon's lawsuit. Collaboration is not so surprising from a state routinely partial to hunters because of the revenue involved.

Lurking in the background of this case (Sturgeon vs. Masica et al.) is the larger issue of the limits on state and private property rights when they clash with federal legal restraints in behalf of the national interest.

If Sturgeon were to get his way, the owners of numerous inholdings in the country's national parks and wilderness areas could cite his judicial success as precedent for their own disruptive projects. Why not allow large scale construction, an air strip, commercial mining operation or other activities totally out of character with surrounding federal lands set aside as wilderness?

States specializing in commercial harvesting of natural resources and thus, opposed to prohibitions on development of their inholdings in national wilderness, might be emboldened to defy federal restrictions.

The lower court would have none this, but concurrence by the Supreme Court in dismissing Sturgeon's complaint is no foregone conclusion. A conservative majority has often been partial to states' rights arguments and sided with commercial interests in disputes with Washington.

The balance between individual rights and collective rights can be a delicate exercise and is on trial in the Sturgeon case. To strike that proper balance, the Supreme Court will have to accept the following premise. When preservation of the nation's unique wilderness heritage is at stake, disruptive commercial activities in the midst of the protected area are out of bounds, even on state and/or privately owned inholdings.