In a remote corner of the wild north, just south of the Arctic Circle, an Alaskan moose hunter and the national park service have set the stage for a legal battle now headed to the US supreme court.

What started nine years ago as a debate over whether a hovercraft (a water vessel that rides on a cushion of air) is the same as a boat (which rides on a hull in the water) has turned into a monster legal battle that has raised questions – and hackles – about state sovereignty and federal overreach.

In contrast to the situation in Oregon, where protesters who seized a wildlife refuge are in a standoff with federal officials over how they manage public lands in the west, no one is occupying anything. But the anger at the federal government in Alaska is much the same, with the nation’s highest court set to moderate.

The justices have been asked to determine whether the state or the federal government has authority over the Nation and Yukon rivers within the Yukon-Charley rivers national preserve. The state considers Alaskan John Sturgeon’s 10-foot-long hovercraft a boat and is fine with it being used on the rivers. The park service is of the opposite view. Sturgeons’ future moose hunts hang in the balance.

In 1983, the federal agency declared hovercraft generally illegal in federal parks and preserves, arguing: “They provide virtually unlimited access to park areas and introduce a mechanical mode of transportation into locations where the intrusion of motorized equipment by sight or sound is generally inappropriate. … Hovercraft shall only be permitted pursuant to special regulations and only following a thorough analysis of their effect on park resources.”

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By the time the regulation was written, Sturgeon had been hunting moose along the Nation for more than a decade. And after the regulation was written, no one in Alaska paid much attention for another 14 years.

So Sturgeon, once the state’s chief forester, wasn’t concerned when, in September 2007, he encountered the first park rangers he’d ever seen along the Nation. His hovercraft was at the time parked on a gravel bar along the river while he repaired a steering cable.

The meeting was friendly, Sturgeon said. He chatted with three rangers for about 20 minutes. They wanted to know how long he’d been hunting in the area, how successful he’d been over the years, when he started using the hovercraft, how far up the rocky river he could get with it, and more.

“Then, just like in the movies, one of these guys pulls out a rule book and he reads this one sentence: ‘Hovercraft are not allowed in parks and preserves,’” Sturgeon said.

After Sturgeon returned home with his hovercraft, he read the park regulations and tried to apply for the special authority to take it back to the Nation. His request was denied.

Sturgeon said the park service’s head of enforcement dared him to sue, and added a warning that the federal government had deep pockets and lots of lawyers. Sturgeon stewed. The more he thought about what the park policeman had said, the madder he got.

Eventually, he filed a lawsuit.

It was an immediate winner in the Alaskan court of public opinion, but a loser in the US district court for Alaska. Sturgeon, a tenacious man who by then was attracting a small legion of supporters, including the state, appealed to the 9th US circuit court of appeals. He lost again.

The circuit court ruling, however, set a precedent that concerned both state officials and Alaska Native Corporations, which gained title to 44m acres of land as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Both worried about the federal government being granted authority to oversee the use of other navigable rivers in the state. The Alaska Statehood Act was to have given the state, which tends to be more open to the needs of commerce than the federal government, this power.

The state, the Native corporations, and others encouraged Sturgeon to appeal his case to the US supreme court. To the surprise of some, the court agreed to hear it. The hearing is set for 20 January. The outcome is uncertain.

Alaskans of all stripes have rallied to Sturgeon’s cause. Since 1 October, they’ve donated $220,000 to support the court case. Hunting groups and Native corporations that seldom agree on anything have gotten solidly behind it.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the state’s second largest newspaper, has called the case “strikingly important with regard to the sovereignty of the state of Alaska”.

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