Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series examining the battle a large Alaska family is fighting with federal officials over access to their land, which is located in a national park.
Not many travelers find their way in mid-winter to the small towns in southeast Alaska’s backcountry – which is why folks in McCarthy – a miniscule community in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve – were surprised when two pickup trucks rolled into town in late January 2002, pulled up in front of the McCarthy Lodge and 10 passengers piled out. One was an older man, who appeared to be in his early 60s. The others ranged in age from their mid-20s to a small girl about 5 years old.
Neil Darish, co-owner of the historic lodge, was on the roof shoveling snow off, and the newcomers didn’t see him. But he saw them, and he watched as they got their bearings, talking to one another.
“Papa, this is what we thought Fairbanks was going to be like,” Darish heard one of the young men exclaim. He learned later this was Joshua, 22, the second-oldest son in the 17-member Pilgrim family.
Darish and others wondered about the group – who they were, where they’d come from, and why.
They got answers to their questions soon enough, but had no way of knowing that in less than two years this pleasant family of young people and their father would be embroiled in an expanding battle with federal officials over access issues and property rights; and that the community would be rallying to derail Park Service plans it feared could escalate into a second Ruby Ridge.
That was in the future. The immediate question was, why had they come to McCarthy?
A prosperous copper-mining community in the early decades of the last century, the town today has a winter population of about 20-25, including children, and not many more in the summer. Located 225 miles east of Anchorage as the crow flies and 60 miles from the Canadian border, McCarthy is the only entryway into Wrangell-St. Elias, the nation’s largest national park and preserve – 13 million acres, an area the size of Switzerland, of rugged mountains, glaciers and forests. So remote is McCarthy it is “off the grid” – that is, residents and businesses rely on generators for electricity.
Getting to McCarthy is doable but difficult in winter. It is over 150 miles southeast of Copper Center, the park headquarters that is outside the park boundaries on the west side of the Copper River. Because there is no bridge, visitors can’t enter the park at that point. Instead, one must go to Chitina – a 100-mile drive on the Richardson and Edgerton Highways from Copper Center – and continue for 58 miles on the one-lane, gravel-surfaced McCarthy Road that runs southeast from Chitina, ending at the Kennicott River, a mile west of the center of McCarthy. There’s no vehicle bridge over the Kennicott, so summer visitors and residents alike must park near the river and walk across on the 450-foot-long pedestrian bridge. In winter, an ice bridge built by a local contractor enables cars and trucks to drive into town.
What would inspire these 10 visitors to brave the McCarthy Road – a two-and-a half-hour drive at the best of times – during the coldest, snowiest time of the year?
And who were they? Where were they from? The girls and a young woman in her mid-20s wore long, flower-patterned skirts and straight, flowing hair; the boys and young men, too, wore their hair longer than the current style. All could have passed for pioneers of the 1860s or flower children from the 1960s.
“The thought went through my head – are they the real McCoy?” Darish told WorldNetDaily. “I was watching and thinking, what the heck? They looked like hillbillies.”
He didn’t have to wait long for answers. The newcomers had brought musical instruments with them: fiddles, guitars, mandolins and a banjo.
“Within 15 minutes they were in my lodge playing bluegrass music, and all the neighbors were coming out,” he recalled. “It was the middle of winter and about 17 or 20 people were around at that point. It was a wonderful festive thing.”
The Pilgrims playing at McCarthy Lodge. L-R: David, Hosanna, Israel, Pilgrim, Joshua (the little girl in front of Joshua is Psalms), Elishaba, Moses, Jerusalem and Joseph. (Photo by Neil Darish, Wrangell St. Elias News, with permission.)
Year-round residents Laurie Rowland, her husband Keith, a general contractor, moved to McCarthy about a year and a half ago with their five children and intend living there “forever.” The Rowlands are close friends of the Pilgrims, though they admit to initial concerns.
“They had to prove themselves to us,” Laurie told WorldNetDaily. “When we first saw them we were wondering who are these people. They looked so different. Do they have an agenda? Are they trying to prove something? Are they a cult? We couldn’t figure them out at first, and we wanted to be 100 percent sure of them. But we got to know them, and we found out they’re OK right down the line, straight up, nothing cultish about them. Nothing strange. That’s what we were worried about, and these people had to prove to us who they were just by living their lives in front of us.”
Darish also decided the group is the real McCoy. “I’ve known them for a year and a half, and can say that not only are they people of their word but there’s absolutely no malice in their behavior, which is refreshing,” he said. “I’ve looked for red flags and found none. As far as character goes I’m totally convinced. Their character is high-caliber.”
New Mexico to Alaska
Their legal name is Hale, but they call themselves the Pilgrim family. That winter day, their clear voices blending in song brought to McCarthy the high, lonesome sound of the Appalachian Highlands by way of the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, where they had lived relatively isolated from the world from 1979 until 1998, when they left to build a new life in Alaska.
Questions were asked and answered. Pilgrim, as Robert Hale prefers to be called, explained to Darish that this was just part of the family. His wife, Country Rose, and six younger children were back at their homestead on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska, one of several places the family had lived since arriving in the Last Frontier State four years before.
He said that they had followed a subsistence lifestyle in New Mexico, their home being many miles from the nearest town, but increasing numbers of people were finding their way into the area. The family hoped to find a piece of property large enough that they would have privacy and be far enough from large population centers that they could continue to live a subsistence lifestyle. They were traveling throughout Alaska looking for just the right spot – a place they felt welcome, a place they could call home. They had been performing at the Anchorage Folk Festival when they heard about McCarthy and decided to check it out.
Pilgrim and Country Rose are deeply devout Christians, and recently – in separate telephone conversations – talked openly with WorldNetDaily about their life in New Mexico and Alaska, and the role they say God played in ordering it. They came from middle-class families, though his was far more affluent. The couple met in 1974 and was married in 1975. Elishaba, 27, was their firstborn, followed by Joseph, 25.
Pilgrim, 62, is a number of years older than his spouse and at the time they met had spent many years studying various religions, seeking meaning and direction to his life. That changed when both he and Country Rose became Christians. From that time on they sought, listened to and obeyed God’s counsel.
“I came to the Lord in 1979,” he said. “We had begun our family, and basically that’s all we’ve ever known.”
They moved to New Mexico where they were able to live at a very low rent as caretakers on a ranch owned by a party who lived in another state. There they began the simple, back-to-the-land lifestyle they felt God had told them they should follow. It proved to be a good life for them and their children. They built a cabin and planted a garden for fresh vegetables. Some goats and a couple of cows gave milk for cheese, while their flock of about 150 sheep provided meat and wool.
In his words: “We were shepherds there. … We worked with our hands, tanned our own leather, made our own soap, made our food, our own cheese, grew our own wheat. … I have many years of college, seven to be exact, but what I wanted my children to learn – and what they did learn – was the character of God, the love of the Lord, and the wisdom and knowledge that comes through his Word – how to use the Scriptures in their own lives. It is kind of an automatic thing once you know the Lord like this. We learned to do everything through the Lord, to do a job well.”
Everything is seen as part of God’s plan – including their music. They had never heard bluegrass music until they attended a bluegrass festival in 1997. Asked how the family learned to play instruments, Country Rose explained that “the Lord kind of connected us with a few very good people” who showed them the basics – scales, chords, runs and such. And they were told to “pick it up and start playing.” They play only gospel songs, some of which they’ve written themselves.
They all wanted to make music, and to decide who should play what, Pilgrim wrote down the names of various instruments on slips of paper to draw from a hat, leaving the decision up to the Lord. Just as God directed the Pilgrims to their instruments and to people who could help them take their first steps in music making, it was He who told them to leave New Mexico and move to Alaska, they say.
“It was like God was calling us here, and He was telling us He was going to give us a place in Alaska and we were going to homestead – we were going to have more room and more space and a bigger vision,” said Country Rose.
Pilgrim girls: Bethlehem, Lamb and (on ground) Psalms. (Photo by Gary Green, Wrangell St. Elias News, with permission.)
The family felt the area around McCarthy was the place they had been looking for. They found and purchased 405 acres of former mining properties (in three separate parcels) about 14 miles northeast of McCarthy. Their homesite is on the valley floor – a five-acre section called the Marvellous Millsite, and a long, rectangular 160-acre parcel known as the Spokane Placer is separated from the Millsite by five acres of National Park Service, or NPS, land. The third section (240 acres) is on the mountainside and includes the former Mother Lode Mine, once a major copper mine.
The properties are connected by a rough dirt road, the McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Road or Trail, which begins in McCarthy and follows McCarthy Creek, a mountain steam that flows from the glacier at the head of the valley. Neither road nor stream is a straight shot up the valley. Both twist and wind, with the road crossing the stream at 17 places. In spring McCarthy Creek becomes a raging torrent.
By late April 2002, the Pilgrims were moving onto their new homestead. They set about repairing a few of several buildings already built on the Marvellous Millsite. They brought supplies in on snowmachines (called snowmobiles in the lower 48) – making dozens of trips back and forth between McCarthy and the homestead. On the 160-acre Spokane Placer parcel was a small airstrip that they lengthened to 2,000 feet so supplies could be flown in. Chickens and goats – on which they depend for eggs and milk – and other animals were flown in.
The retired miner from whom they bought their homestead also owned a property in town with a corral and a cabin that he said the family could use. They use it as a staging area for taking equipment and supplies up to the homestead and as a place to stay when they have to be in town.
Over the years, the Pilgrims had learned how to tackle just about any task. They can tan leather, fix machinery, do carpentry, spin, sew, cook, hunt, fish, garden and make music. “Resourceful,” “hardworking,” “self-sufficient” and “creative” are a few of the words McCarthy residents use to describe them.
The one thing the Pilgrims had never needed to learn was how to deal with an agency like the National Park Service. Indeed, they scarcely knew what it was. Pilgrim was familiar with the U.S. Forest Service, “because in New Mexico you run into those people all over.” But except for those in the Forest Service, the only government agents with whom he’d had dealings were the state livestock and brand inspectors at the auctions, and there were never any hassles with them.
A rude awakening
The Pilgrims were in for a rude awakening. When they bought their land they knew it was in a national park, but saw that as a plus.
“That’s what we liked about it,” Pilgrim exclaims. “That meant there wouldn’t be a lot of neighbors around.” Also, they had heard that in Alaska the parks were places where you could live a subsistence lifestyle: that this was a right guaranteed by federal law – the Alaska National Lands Conservation Act – or ANILCA.
But there were two crucial matters the Pilgrims didn’t know about in regard to the Park Service. First, they didn’t know about its expansionist agenda and aggressive programs and policies for acquiring private land within and around its units – national parks, recreation areas, whatever. Second, they were unaware that in its zeal to “protect the resource,” the NPS has a policy of closing existing roads and using a convoluted permitting process to disallow new ones.
The Pilgrims knew none of that, but from the time they began work at their homestead they found themselves being drawn into a contentious relationship with the NPS characterized by surveillance, unexpected prohibitions on the use of their road and slanderous rumors.
“They seem to have just one thing on their mind: They want to get rid of us,” says Pilgrim.
The NPS denies this is the case.
Nonetheless, the agency took to monitoring the homestead from the air, presumably looking for “resource damage,” flying helicopters and small planes low enough to frighten the little children and the animals. One flew so low the boys were able to read its numbers, prompting Pilgrim to file a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Pilgrims were told they couldn’t take a bulldozer along the McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Road, even for maintenance work on it. This despite the fact that people living in the town and other landowners along the trail – according to local sources – have run bulldozers up and down the road every year to keep it open and accessible.
“We had never heard of such a rule,” said Pilgrim. “It was obvious there was a road there, and the owner told us to use it and to use the bulldozer. … So we had no reason to think we couldn’t use the bulldozer.” However, he maintains he never actually used it for roadwork.
“We’ve not taken a bulldozer down the road,” he said.
They learned motorized vehicles weren’t allowed either, except snowmachines when there is “adequate” snow cover. This meant supplies had to be brought in by snowmachine or plane, and the expense put a severe strain on their resources.
The Park Service has said the family may use the road if it has a permit – a requirement fraught with potential problems. For one thing, the length of a permit is relatively short – five years, according to park superintendent Gary Candelaria. Inholders like the Pilgrims need assurance they’ll have long-term access to their property and that it can be transferred with the title to their heirs.
“[Another] problem with a permit is once you ask for one they can deny it, and it’s almost impossible for you to get,” Pilgrim said. “It seems to me that your right of way is guaranteed under ANILCA and RS 2477 [the old law regarding use of traditional roads], so you shouldn’t need a permit.”
Besides, he added, “they never told us we couldn’t use the road; they never told us that they thought we needed a permit.”
The NPS counters saying it tried to notify the Pilgrims numerous times about the permit requirement and other matters, but they refused to communicate either by letter or conversation. According to chief ranger Hunter Sharp, “They won’t talk with us. They won’t meet with us. They won’t accept any mail from us.”
Sharp told WorldNetDaily that letters to the family had been returned unopened, and attempts to initiate conversation with the younger men and their father at different times had been rebuffed.
A refusal to communicate even verbally is at odds with numerous accounts of the family’s graciousness, but the ranger’s remarks are correct. The Pilgrims refused to speak to park personnel and communicated only by way of posted notices and through intermediaries. Reasons for their aloofness are far from clear, considering they had had no contact with the Park Service before purchasing their homestead: Pilgrim says that at first he didn’t know what the acronym NPS stood for.
It can be explained partly in that, right or wrong, Pilgrim believed anything he said to the Park Service might at some point be used against him. Moreover, he had reason to believe the agency was working against him and his family by discrediting them.
The Pilgrims’ cabin on their Alaska property.
Ammo in mandolin case
“The next thing that happened is right away they started finding friends of ours and spreading rumors, trying to create a negative picture,” Pilgrim declared. “They started rumors that we carried guns and ammunition in our instrument cases. They said all sorts of things. We’re trying to track these rumors down, but rumors are hard to follow.”
WorldNetDaily talked with several locals who repeated rumors they said they had heard from the Park Service officials, and were in some instances willing to give the name of the teller. A couple of examples (without names): When one of the girls dropped her mandolin case, it opened and was packed with ammunition; the young men had shot at some rangers; they’re all thieves.
Rick Kenyon, publisher of Wrangell St. Elias News, a bimonthly newspaper, was told by a park maintenance worker that a particular ranger warned him and his co-workers at a meeting to keep their equipment locked up because of “those people” over there, indicating the direction of the homestead.
Kenyon, one of several townspeople attempting to track the rumors, told WorldNetDaily his efforts to date show that not only did park personnel spread these and other rumors, but some rumors can be shown to actually have been originated by the NPS. He is piecing the information together.
As to why the NPS would wish to “get” the Pilgrims and is “picking on them” (which it denies doing) – the general view around town is that it wants their land and is trying to drive them off.
“That property is highly coveted by the Park Service,” said Laurie Rowland. “It’s in what we call the heart of the park. It’s got historic mines. That 400 acres would be the apple of the park’s eye.” In her view, “They want that property and will do anything to get it.”
Rowland added that such an opinion did not come easily to her. “I hate to say that, because my husband and I were raised in families where we were taught to respect authority,” she told WND. “Now we are blatantly in disagreement with government agents, and that goes against everything we were taught. It goes against our basic nature.”
But whether or not the Park Service has its eye on the property or is spreading rumors – whatever the reason for their silence, there were friends of the Pilgrims who disagreed with their stance of non-communication and for months urged the newcomers to sit down and talk with the park officials. Inn-owner Darish was one.
Darish said he could not explain the precise origin of the Pilgrims’ antipathy toward the Park Service, but was able to shed some light on their use of silence. He said he’s observed that when there’s a likelihood of conflict, or if someone they’re talking to starts cursing or using coarse language, they just walk away.
“They want to avoid conflict, and it’s really effective,” Darish said, adding, “They turned and walked away from me a couple of times because I was being incorrect and uncool.”
Bureaucrat ignores inholders
Also, according to Darish, the family was not averse to talking to the Park Service – only to those at the local level whom they considered to be the source of their problems. When Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service, visited McCarthy in early August 2002, Pilgrim was anxious to speak with her and tried to arrange a meeting.
Mainella refused to talk with them saying she did not wish to meet with inholders, and park personnel shielded her from possible encounters on the street.
“They kept her from us,” said Pilgrim. “She met with Neil and Doug [Miller, co-owner of the McCarthy Lodge], had dinner with Rick [Kenyon] and all these people. She went up to the Kennicott Lodge, yet they wouldn’t let her near my family, and we’re half the winter population of the town.”
Says Darish, “He absolutely wanted to talk to the Park Service, but high enough up that he could be sure of straight answers, that whatever permission (a permit) he got would be long-term and valid.”
However, although Darish understands some of the reasons behind the decision not to talk with the local park staff, he said he does not think it’s an effective tactic for dealing with the NPS.
“The fact is I’ve spent a year trying to get the two sides to talk,” he explained. “Papa Pilgrim knows that and the Park Service knows that.”
Chuck Cushman, founder and executive director of the American Land Rights Association, a nonprofit, public-interest advocacy group based in Battle Ground, Wash., has made a career of helping inholders like the Pilgrims defend their property rights against government agencies, and he recently agreed to help them in their dispute with the Park Service.
He said the first step was to get the two sides talking.
“[The Pilgrims] misunderstood how they could lose their rights,” said Cushman. “My sense of it is that they felt that [by talking] they would be agreeing to things or somehow giving up their rights. That is an innocent idea. They’re a peaceful family. … They thought that if they talked to the Park Service they could lose their rights. I think that was an error, and had we been contacted we’d have guided them to a more open communication as we have done since.
“However,” he continued, “the Park Service has to deal with its long-standing image in the community and the anger of people over what they perceive as constant pressure and intransigence and unwillingness of the Park Service to work with the local people. … The Pilgrims sort of sucked in the kind of cultural anger that exists in McCarthy, and nearly every other inholding area in the country.
“The bottom line is these guys have to be able to get to their property,” Cushman declared. “They’ve got to have access, and the Park Service keeps throwing barriers in their way. All of them sound legitimate, all of them sound reasonable, and all of them for the most part are not consistent with what was intended by Congress when they passed ANILCA.”
Tomorrow: NPS scraps plans for ‘SWAT’ team; community, Internet activists rally behind beleaguered family