High court won't hear Pilgrim land case

Hale family claimed right to use bulldozer inside national park

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the case of the Pilgrim family and a feud with the federal government over access to their land inside the country's largest national park.

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The high court gave no reason for refusing to hear the case over the Hale family's inholding in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. However, the court hears only a tiny fraction of cases brought before it.

The Hale family, known as the Pilgrims, claimed the right to use a bulldozer to re-claim an old trail to the mine site they own in the park. They never asked for permits, and the Park Service cited them for damage to stream crossings, among other things.

A legal feud ensued with property rights activists aiding the Pilgrims in their fight against the National Park Service. The federal agency argued the family needed to go through proper channels if it wanted to reopen the road, including doing an environmental assessment on the impact of the road on park land.

Monday's ruling comes after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the family in February. The lower court rejected the family's claim that the Park Service had violated their rights by requiring the environmental analysis.

While the land dispute case simmered, it was revealed that Robert Hale, the 66-year-old family patriarch known as Papa Pilgrim, was sexually abusing one of his children. Hale pleaded no contest to one count each of sexual assault, coercion and incest. He was sentenced last month to 14 years in prison.

During the sentencing, the Hale children told horrific stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse on the homestead in the national park. Currently, the 15 Hale children and their mother live with friends or spouses near Anchorage.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which helped the Pilgrims wage their property rights lawsuit, said Monday it was regretful that the Supreme Court would not hear the case. The federal government, however, can still do right by the family by giving them "full access"' to their property to rebuild their home, the foundation said in a news release.

The Hale family argued that it needed the road to get building materials and equipment to the property after a fire destroyed their home.

The Park Service eventually granted the family a winter-only permit to travel the road.

Joseph Hale, the oldest child, said the road in winter is good only for snowmobile travel. While the family brought in a lot of supplies by snowmobile, it was hard to get the building materials needed to the site, he said.

The National Park Service said it is working on the issue of access to private lands within the park.

"We have been working collaboratively with private land owners within the Alaska parks to affirmatively address their access rights," Marcia Blaszak, regional director for Alaska, said in an e-mail.

The agency is accepting public comments on an environmental assessment looking at access routes within the park through Jan. 31, she said.

The Pacific Legal Foundation said the Park Service should show the Hale children some flexibility.

"We're attempting to make sure the Hale children - who have already suffered because of criminal acts - are not victimized by regulatory wrongs that violate their property rights," said James Burling, director of litigation for the foundation.

Burling represented three of the 15 Hale siblings: Joshua, Joseph and Elishaba.

Joseph Hale, 30, said the family has no plans to move back to the property inside the park on a full-time basis because it isn't practical given the access issue. If the access was better, he said the family would definitely use the property more.

"We can't get supplies in and out of there," he said. "We can't really live there because of the road access."

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