FAIRBANKS - Residents in the small Yukon River village of Eagle are rebelling against the National Park Service for what they say is "harassment and intimidation" by "military-style law enforcement officers" in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
The town's city council sent a letter to National Park Service director, John Jarvis, in Washington, D.C., the Alaska Congressional delegation, Gov. Sean Parnell and state legislators protesting what it terms "the disrespectful and aggressive attitudes of the Park Service employees who patrolled the river last summer."
The letter stems mainly from two incidents that occurred in August and September when rangers detained and handcuffed two men - one from Central and one from Eagle - on separate occasions.
One of the men, 70-year-old Jim Wilde of Central, was arrested and charged with four misdemeanors - interfering with agency function; violating a lawful order; disorderly conduct; and operating an unregistered boat - after rangers confronted him on the river.
The other man, Tim Henry, was eventually given a fix-it ticket for having an unregistered boat.
Wilde is fighting the charges against him. His trial was originally scheduled to begin Nov. 30 but has been delayed until mid-January, his attorney, Bill Satterberg of Fairbanks, said.
Eagle Mayor Bo Fay said the problems are the result of some overzealous rangers and a new superintendent - Greg Dudgeon - who is bent on turning the preserve into a private park. He and other residents in the village of 150 at the end of the Taylor Highway 200 miles east of Fairbanks say Park Service rangers have gotten out of hand and want them replaced.
"They make the public feel unwelcome on public land," Fay said. "I hear it from the locals. I hear it from people from Fairbanks. I hear it from people from Anchorage."
Rangers are intent on enforcing "the letter of the law" when it's not necessary, Fay said.
"I think in this semi-Third World environment the spirit of the law is appropriate," he said, referring to the remoteness of Eagle, which is located about 10 miles from the Canadian border. "I don't think we've got a bunch of poachers around here. Most people are just trying to get by. I don't think they have any sensitivity at all with low-income people. They're harassing a poor person trying to catch a few fish or get a moose. They just want to push people around."
Residents in Eagle are asking the park service to replace the rangers with ones "who understand our lifestyle and can fulfill their duties respectfully and reasonably," the city council's letter states.
"These heavy-handed enforcement efforts accomplish nothing except to create ill will in the community and cost the taxpayers money," the letter reads.
Eagle city council member Don Woodruff said hostility between the community and the park service has been brewing for the past four years, ever since Dudgeon took over. Woodruff said rangers got upset with him the last two years when he ignored them. A ranger threatened to arrest Woodruff this year when he refused to talk to the ranger.
"I said, 'I don't have to talk to you' and he said, 'I'm going to arrest you if you don't,' Woodruff said. "It's just harassment, that's how I see it."
The same two rangers were involved in both incidents but Dudgeon disputed accusations the Park Service has been heavy handed in its enforcement. The two episodes this summer "have captured peoples' imaginations," he said.
The park service began doing boat safety checks three years ago, shortly after Dudgeon took over as superintendent. In the last three years, rangers have made more than 200 "contacts" with people in the preserve, including more than 60 this past summer, Dudgeon said. During that time, there have been only two occasions when tickets were issued, one of which was the Wilde incident and the other involving an elderly Eagle man in early September who park rangers say refused to identify himself and walked away from them. Rangers ended up handcuffing the man before issuing him a fix-it ticket for having an unregistered boat.
"These two incidents are the exception to what's been the norm out there," Dudgeon said. "The numbers speak for themselves. I don't think it's a pattern." On Friday, Dudgeon said he received the letter from Eagle's city council and hopes to meet with the council at its next meeting "to get the full flavor of their questions and concerns."
Eagle residents say they just want to be left alone to pursue the subsistence lifestyles they have chosen without being hassled by "out of control" park rangers, Woodruff said. He suggested the park service create a subsistence council to act as an intermediary between the village and the agency.
"If we knew ahead of time they were going to throw us in the mud because we don't have a (registration) sticker on our boat, we wouldn't go down to the preserve," Woodruff said. "People are fearful of going to use the preserve because of harassment. That's a sad state of affairs. It's our lifeblood, going down there to hunt and trap."
Legal battle looms
The park service began doing boat safety inspections three years ago to increase visitor safety and protect resources within the preserve, Dudgeon said.
"It helps us understand whose out there and what belongs to whom," he said.
In the case of Wilde, charges filed in Fairbanks federal court allege that he threatened, resisted, intimidated and intentionally interfered with a park ranger during an official duty; fled when he was ordered to halt; and recklessly created "a risk of public nuisance and violence by engaging in threatening and violent behavior in the form of maneuvering his boat toward the path of a law enforcement vessel, and in other ways."
Wilde's attorney, Bill Satterberg of Fairbanks, tells a different story. He contends that two park rangers flagged Wilde down as he, his wife and a friend were boating up the Yukon River near Woodchopper Creek. The rangers wanted to board Wilde's boat to perform a safety inspection but Wilde told them it was unsafe to board his boat in the middle of the river and he would go ashore. As Wilde motored to shore, the park rangers followed. One of the rangers had a shotgun pointed at Wilde as he headed toward shore, Satterberg said. After reaching shore, Wilde was anchoring his boat when the rangers "roughed him up a little bit by rolling him around in the mud."
Wilde spent three days in jail after his arrest before being released.
When Wilde's arrest was made public, it ignited a political firestorm. Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the circumstances of the arrest "questionable" and the behavior of the arresting officers as "provocative." Murkowski asked the park service for a full review of the case.
Wilde's arrest also heated up a long-simmering debate between state and federal authorities over jurisdiction on the state's navigable waters. The state contends the feds don't have such jurisdiction and it violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, while the feds say amendments made to federal regulations in 1996 give them authority to enforce state law on navigable waterways inside National Park Service boundaries.
A week and a half after Wilde's arrest, Gov. Sean Parnell announced the state was filing a petition with Secretary of the Interior to amend or rescind those regulations.
But it doesn't appear the park service will do so. Murkowski met with park service officials this week, and they said they intended to pursue the case against Wilde in an attempt to get a court decision regarding federal jurisdiction on navigable state waters, Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said on Friday.
"That's certainly the appropriate venue," Dudgeon said, confirming the park service's intent. "We welcome the opportunity to have the question in front of the course. That's where it should be decided."
In Eagle, residents are more concerned about being left alone than they are any legal battle. There have been similar situations in past years when certain rangers have overreacted and the situation has always worked itself out, Fay said.
"Historically, if there's been a troublemaker they get transferred out of here," Fay said of previous rangers. "All they are is overhead for the working man. They're basically living off the backs of productive people in our society, doing something on a scale that is grander than necessary."