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Net users go to bat
for 'Pilgrim' family

Posted By Sarah Foster On 06/27/2003 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

Editor’s note: Yesterday, WND reported the year-long struggle of a 17-member Christian family that recently bought property within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska near the remote communities of McCarthy and Kennecott. From the time the Pilgrims – as they call themselves – began working on their homestead, they found themselves under the watchful eye – many would say overbearing eye – of the National Park Service.

Today’s final installment describes plans by the National Park Service to bring in by helicopter an armed Special Events Team near the family’s homestead, with background on events leading up to what some feared could become a second Ruby Ridge.

Early this month, property-rights activists learned via the Internet that the National Park Service planned to bring a special contingent of fully armed agents to government-owned land next to an inholding in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, ostensibly to protect a group of surveyors and scientists from a large, non-violent family that calls itself “the Pilgrims.”

Although technically not a SWAT team, it would be a squad of armed law-enforcement rangers with “extensive training” and “top-notch skills” that would augment the park’s regular ranger force. Prompt action by Internet activists rallied support for the Pilgrims and forced the Park Service to scrub the operation and scale back plans for “resource damage” assessment. At least for now. But their problems are far from over. In fact, they are just beginning.

Ray Kreig, a long-time member of the Alaska Miners Association and a member of its Federal Oversight Committee, has become involved in the Pilgrims’ case. With two decades involvement in cases involving property rights and inholder issues to draw on, he provided WorldNetDaily with insight on the situation in McCarthy – the fallout from the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, the pitfalls of the permitting process, road closures and surveillance of inholders. These matters affect not only the Pilgrim family but townspeople and inholders throughout the park and the people of Alaska.

ANILCA and RS 2477 roads

Some background: Bill Clinton was not the first or only president to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments. On Dec. 1, 1978 (just after the election), Jimmy Carter, by a series of Proclamations, removed 56 million acres of land in Alaska from the control of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service and placed it in the hands of the National Park Service as a scattered collection of national monuments.

The monument designations had a “serious impact” in Alaska, said Kreig. “There were reports of the feds taking over, people not having any access to the cabins, to their trap lines. There was virtual civil disobedience in many areas. Park Service airplanes were mysteriously burned on the airstrips. Protest signs went up blanketing entire business districts. It was a time of great turmoil in Alaska from ’79 to ’80 when ANILCA was passed.”

The ANILCA was “a typical congressional political compromise,” with neither the environmentalists, the residents nor the people who favored development getting everything they wanted, Kreig said.

Through ANILCA, Carter’s monuments were turned into 10 new national parks and wilderness areas. One was Wrangell-St. Elias NP and Preserve, the 13 million-acre megapark that a year earlier was designated a World Heritage Site. These Alaskan parks were intended to be different from those in the lower 48.

“There was an understanding that subsistence activities (hunting, fishing, use of materials at hand) and even mining could continue in many of these parks,” Kreig explained. “There were specific guarantees for access. If you had property, you were guaranteed access.”

Aye, there’s the rub

But, there’s one section in there that says the administrative agency – whether it’s the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, or BLM – can administer the access and issue ‘reasonable’ regulations to prevent damage to the resource. And this is where the rub is. They have then gone ahead and set up this permit process where you need to apply for access, even though access is supposedly guaranteed.”

Kreig said although people living in parks and those with mining claims believed their access to be guaranteed, the federal government officials “had their hands behind their backs and their fingers crossed – it was a trick. The bureaucrats figured they’d get their way later.”

The Park Service and other agency bureaucrats use the permit requirement as a “nose into the tent.” Inholders – people with property in the parks – must apply for permits. But when they do, the agencies “run them through a gauntlet and torture them into bankruptcy. It’s not just a logical, good faith, common-sense permitting process. Park officials will claim that any impact, no matter how slight, will bring about the collapse and ruination of the environment and they are causing enormous costs and risks to anyone that needs to actually exercise their ANILCA-guaranteed access rights.”

The driving intention behind all this is to obtain an inholder’s land, according to Kreig, and the strategy seems to be to look for “trivial disruption of the environment – a depressed tussock or some willow brush cut that’s grown over the trail” – and declare, “That is damage, that’s resource damage. You have to apply for a permit. You can’t do that. We’re going to seize your vehicle.”

Kreig said that in Kantishna in Denali Park NP – as in Wrangell-St. Elias – “the Park Service has wasted – utterly wasted – millions of dollars screwing around out there with helicopter monitoring, sending teams of scientists and biologists and geologists out there, spying on landowners and users while at the same time constantly complaining that they don’t have money for visitor centers or maintenance.”

A huge credibility gap

“People that live in these areas watch the Park Service and know it costs $500 an hour to fly those helicopters around, and that doesn’t cover the personnel costs,” he exclaimed. The result of actions like this on the part of the NPS is a “huge credibility gap” between Alaskans – particularly those in bush communities like McCarthy – and the Park Service.

RS 2477 roads: Government lands in the west are laced with roads – from footpaths to logging roads to roads wide enough for a mobile home. These are roads established by people using the land to drive cattle to market, haul ore from mines or simply to get from one point to another. These traditional roads are called RS 2477 roads.

RS (Revised Statutes) 2477 was a section in the U.S. Code that first appeared in the Mining Act of 1866 and until 1976 governed right-of-way policy on federal land. It stated:

“The right-of-way for the construction of highways across public lands not reserved for public purposes is hereby granted.”

As interpreted by the courts, under RS 2477 existing rights of way were to be honored on land acquired by the federal government. That section was repealed in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, but Section 1769 in the new law states explicitly that “Nothing in this sub-chapter shall have the effect of terminating any right-of-way or right-of-use heretofore issued, granted, or permitted.”

ANILCA guaranteed RS 2477 routes special protection.

Road rage

Since 1981, McCarthy-area residents have been of the impression that ANILCA and the substitute statute for RS 2477 in FLPMA allowed them to drive up McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Road in an ATV or however else they could manage. Often, a bulldozer has been used for transportation since in spring a dozer is the only vehicle that can ford a raging creek, and McCarthy Creek has 17 crossings and no bridges.

But a few years ago area residents began noticing that underlying tensions between townspeople and the Park Service were intensifying, with more restrictive policies being imposed. The changes coincided with the arrival of the new superintendent, Gary Candelaria in 1999. Inholders and visitors found access increasingly denied as long-used roads and trails were closed, including roads to private properties that cut across federal land. Greater restrictions were placed on the use of aircraft.

In McCarthy, measures began being implemented that made access to the town itself increasingly difficult. In 2000, park authorities ordered the bridge over the Kennicott River blocked by posts (bollards) installed so that ATVs could not cross. Residents keep removing these, an action Candelaria calls “vandalism.” That same year, a group of 14 townspeople formed an advocacy group, Coalition for Access to McCarthy, to publicize their predicament and press for solutions. Membership is now about 90.

In 1998, the Alaska Legislature had formally recognized in state statute 659 existing roads and trails throughout the state as valid RS 2477 routes, including McCarthy Creek Road, which it listed as Number 135.

But in mid-April, despite Alaska’s recognition of its validity, the Park Service without a word of warning declared the McCarthy Creek Road and others near it to be illegal.

Here’s what happened: On April 11, some 27 residents and businesspersons gathered in four locations in the area for a noon teleconference to discuss access issues with certain state officials. The McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Road was not on the agenda. No one planned to talk about RS 2477 roads. And no one did.

Rather, discussion dealt with access to the town itself: an upgrading of McCarthy Road from Chitina to McCarthy (which everyone favored) and a widening (or replacement) of the pedestrian bridge over the Kennicott River to accommodate full-size vehicles, which would make it easier to bring supplies into the town center (supplies must otherwise be flown in or hauled in on handcarts that fit on the bridge). An end to the bollards. Though the bridge and the road fall under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and have been long-lobbied for by residents and business owners, these “road enhancement” projects have been repeatedly stalled and blocked at the request of the National Park Service.

The behind-the-scenes lobbying by the park bureaucracy of a state agency to hamper access has fueled a widespread perception that the NPS wants to decrease the number of visitors to the park’s interior, since one way to accomplish that would be to make it difficult or impossible to get there – and once there, to move about.

Wrangell-St. Elias chief ranger Hunter Sharp and ranger Marshall Neeck were at one of the teleconference sites. Waiting until participants had left for their homes and having given no hints of their intentions, the rangers posted two notices in public places, including the door of the Pilgrims’ cabin in the town. Both were signed by park superintendent Gary Candelaria and dated three days before.

The first was directed to everyone in the community:

 

No motorized vehicles are permitted to use the illegal roads bulldozed on federal land located in the McCarthy Creek Drainage, connecting the state land around the town of McCarthy with the Marvellous Millsite private property.

This meant that although McCarthy residents and park visitors had been using the road and others in the area for a hundred years, they could no longer do so except on foot or horse. In effect, it voided an existing state statute.

To paraphrase Clinton consultant Paul Begala: “Stroke of the pen, law of the park – kinda cool.”

A second notice, intended primarily for the Pilgrims, with copies tacked on their door and around town, was more detailed. It announced the Park Service would be surveying the boundaries of the homestead starting around June 15 – to ensure that “prohibited activities” were not being conducted on adjacent NPS land. The second paragraph reiterated the first notice – that the use of motorized equipment in the McCarthy Creek drainage except on the Marvellous Millsite and Spokane Placer property was henceforth prohibited. It noted:

 

… any use of motorized equipment in the McCarthy Creek drainage except on the Marvellous Millsite and Spokane Placer property is prohibited. The only exception is the use of snowmachines when adequate snow cover exists. The route created by the bulldozer is not a park road or designated route. Consequently, the use of motorized vehicles including the bulldozer and any trailers pulled by the bulldozer on that route or other park lands is prohibited and illegal unless authorized by NPS permit. You and those under your direction and control must cease and desist the use of unauthorized motorized equipment on park lands.” [emphasis added]

A bureaucratic atom bomb

At the best of times the notices would have created a stir. But being posted within minutes of the end of a public discussion on access issues they were the bureaucratic equivalent of an atom bomb detonated in central McCarthy. Outraged locals ripped the notices down and burned them.

Pilgrim, in town at the time, was stranded. He is disabled and cannot walk far distances, in part because of a bad knee that also prevents him from riding a horse. His sons have gone back and forth on horseback to carry supplies to the homestead, but contact with his family has been largely by telephone. He has not seen his wife and their 8-month-old son Jonathan since April 11.

The NPS scheduled a community meeting for April 18, which was held at McCarthy Lodge. To field questions Sharp and Neeck were joined by superintendent Gary Candelaria, who was reportedly called back from a trip to California to attend.

Frustrations and anger were vented by the locals in a discussion dominated by road and access issues and the NPS treatment of the Pilgrims. The NPS stood accused of never really listening to or working with the community.

Asked about the surveillance of the Pilgrim’s land, Sharp said NPS flies “all over the place” monitoring the land, and didn’t single out the Pilgrims for special scrutiny – a statement that verifies Ray Kreig’s observation about the Park Service wasting millions of dollars “screwing around out there with helicopter monitoring … spying on landowners and users. …”

Participants were told property owners, and presumably everyone else, need a permit to travel roads in the park. There’s an “elaborate” permitting structure in place involving multiple agencies, and permits are for only five years – but NPS is “pushing” to make them longer, Sharp said.

As for the RS 2477 issue: “I understand it has been asserted by individuals to be a state right-of-way. Nevertheless, neither the state of Alaska, nor the NPS, nor the Department of the Interior recognize it as such,” Candelaria said. The Alaska statute was not enough – the route had been merely “asserted.” It had to be “adjudicated” in a court.

Candelaria insisted that “illegal” activities, particularly “blading,” had taken place on federal land – not only on the 13 miles of McCarthy Creek Road between the town and the Pilgrim’s homesite at Marvellous Millsite, but its continuation up to the Mother Lode Mine. Participants argued that the road was not an “illegal” road and taking a bulldozer along it (which the Pilgrims deny doing) was a customary action and should not be dubbed “illegal.”

“I know that’s your position, but you’re wrong,” Candelaria told participants repeatedly, as in this exchange:

 

Candelaria: We are the ones who are charged by the department and the American public with managing, and we also have the discretion to make those kinds of decisions. [Such as prohibiting motorized vehicle use.]

Ken Rowland: This road was used and supported by the Territory [of Alaska] before you were born.

Candelaria: Again I come back to the point that I understand that’s your position, but I believe your position is wrong.

And this one:

 

Rick Kenyon: … We see you singling out the Pilgrims. Is that working with the community, Gary? And then arbitrarily saying a route that we have not closed in 23 years is all sudden illegal. There’s been dozers up and down that for 23 years. You guys knew it.

Candelaria: At this point, public lands have been impacted. I have no choice but to take action.

Asked if he planned on coming down hard on other landowners along McCarthy Creek Road, some of whom had used the road for 30 years, Candelaria replied, “If people are not willing to cooperate and work through the [permitting] process, probably so.”

The superintendent listened, but refused to lift or modify either of the orders, and they remain in effect. The McCarthy Creek Road – from start to finish – has been deemed an “illegal” road and apparently will remain so unless “adjudicated.”

A big ‘SWAT team’

In law enforcement, SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics, and in late May Neil Darish, co-owner of the McCarthy Lodge, received a frightening anonymous phone call warning that such a team was going to be deployed against the Pilgrim family.

“[The caller] said he had been in some federal office and overheard that the Park Service was planning to bring up a big SWAT team in a week or so,” Darish told WND. “‘SWAT team’ – that’s the word he used. And he said, ‘I just want them to know so they can be ready.’”

There was no way of knowing if the caller was a Park Service whistleblower or simply someone who happened to be standing at the counter of a government office somewhere. For that matter, the message could be a hoax. Confirmation was urgently needed.

Darish told Rick Kenyon about the call. For several years Kenyon has been reporting and deploring Park Service polices in his bimonthly newspaper, Wrangell St. Elias News, which he publishes. In the May-June issue, he had publicized the tug-of-war between the Park Service and the Pilgrim family over access to their property by way of the McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Road.

The following day, with another resident as a witness, Kenyon confronted Hunter Sharp and bluntly asked if a SWAT operation were in the works. The conversation was recorded on tape.

Bubble of protection

Sharp told Kenyon that around June 14 a three-person BLM survey team would begin surveying the boundaries of the Pilgrims’ parcels. At the same time, a team of scientists – a biologist, two botanists, an archaeologist and a geologist – would begin working their way up McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Trail looking for “damage” to the resource. Each group – surveyors and scientists – would be accompanied by six to eight armed rangers, in addition to the local rangers. Their function would be to act as a “bubble of protection” around the scientists and surveyors. He said the Park Service had contacted the FBI, the U.S. Marshal Service and the Alaska State Troopers.

“We are not necessarily asking them to come with us, we have just talked to them,” he explained. “What we have done is we have told those other agencies what we are up to; we have invited them to accompany us if they feel like they need to.”

Sharp denied that a SWAT team was being called out, rather there would be “what we call a Special Events Team.” “We use them when we need a group of folks who have practiced together,” he said. The SET would be comprised of six to eight SET rangers, plus there would be several Wrangell-St. Elias Park rangers, with all the agents conveyed by helicopter to and from NPS property adjacent to the Pilgrims’.

The distinction between a SET and SWAT team is a fine one, and as Kenyon sees it is so fine as to be nonexistent. “They can call it what they want, it’s still a SWAT team,” he says matter-of-factly. [This sidebar presents further information about federal SET teams.]


Part of the Pilgrim family making music together.

Because they were known to avoid confrontation, Kenyon and others in McCarthy were not afraid the Pilgrims would start shooting at the feds – but rather the other way around. They feared a replay of “Ruby Ridge” – the U.S. Marshal Service/FBI action in Idaho in August 1992 during which Randy Weaver’s 14-year-old son was killed when a marshal shot him in the back and sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi assassinated Weaver’s wife, Vicki, as she stood in the doorway of their cabin with her baby in her arms.

Appalled at what he had learned, Kenyon drafted an article about the plans and his conversation with Sharp.

“Helicopters will be used to transport this army of NPS shooters and surveyors up the creek, although the Pilgrims have specifically offered the use of their airstrip by light plane to avoid the noise and confusion of helicopter landings and overflights near the livestock,” he wrote.

“They (the surveyors) will be accompanied by an NPS ‘Special Events Team’ of 6-8 armed rangers, plus local rangers. This is ridiculous. NPS has painted the family as being dangerous and is escalating this thing into something bizarre.”

He stressed that the Pilgrims are pacifists, that they are “a law-abiding, God-fearing family of 17 that dresses differently and talks differently (they are outspoken in their faith in God and their opposition to evil) but are loving, caring people who have been a real blessing to their neighbors.”

Since the next issue of his paper was not scheduled for several weeks, he sent his article to the Mat-Su Valley News, a publication in the Anchorage area. It was posted online on Saturday, May 31.

In addition, Kenyon contacted Julie Smithson, an Internet activist in central Ohio who has a website dealing with property rights – www.propertyrightsresearch.org – with a large distribution list that counts three Alaska state legislators among the contacts. He sent her the link to his article in the Mat-Su Valley News, and Smithson forwarded it to those on her list.

By Monday morning, phones were ringing in Park Service and congressional offices, and e-mails were flooding their inboxes. Contacted for comment, Smithson explained her role as facilitator in the process: “Rick [Kenyon] sent me an e-mail late Saturday night saying, ‘We have a problem up here and can you get the word out?’ He sent me some information. Well, I just did my job. And it’s humming right along, isn’t it?”

Indeed it was, and the Park Service was not pleased. Within days, officials were scaling back the operation and doing damage control.

When WorldNetDaily called Sharp on June 4 for confirmation or denial of the survey and road study, as well as the use of a SET, Sharp said the information was only “partially correct.” He said the plans for the road assessment had been put on hold, but would be undertaken at another time.

“All we’re doing is to survey the boundary line around the Marvelous Millsite and the Spokane Placer Mine (the 160-acre portion),” he said. “Those are private lands. Our issue is that it appears that neither we nor the landowner know exactly where the boundary lines are and there are actions being taken to the ground – bulldozing activities and disturbance to the ground, some ditching – on Park Service land, and we need to know where the boundary is.”

As to whether there would be “six or eight armed rangers for a special events team plus the local rangers,” Sharp flatly denied plans to use such a team.

“We do not need any additional law enforcement,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that we’re going to have an issue out there.”

The least confrontational manner

That same day, June 4, Robert Arnberger, director of the Alaska Region of the National Park Service, in a formal memo announced that the NPS had “formulated a plan for undertaking the survey and resource assessment.”

“This plan has been constantly evolving in response to a fast-changing adversarial environment in McCarthy,” Arnberger wrote. “Recent decisions have focused on accomplishing the survey as the highest priority and carrying it out in the least confrontational manner possible.”

The only work done at this time would be to survey and establish the property boundaries. The “resource assessment” and road study would be done off and on during the summer “through non-confrontational methods.”

“We believe this approach clearly de-escalates federal action from what appears to be an increasing risk of confrontation that is being deliberately constructed to serve the narrow interests of some of the citizens of McCarthy and the Hale Family,” said Arnberger.

Thus within a few days, prompt action by Internet activists across the country had averted an operation many feared could end tragically. Arnberger admitted this, though from a different perspective.

“Several local citizens in McCarthy have become very vocal in articulating their support of the Pilgrims and their rights to access their property,” he wrote. “They have succeeded in bringing attention to this issue through radio, print news and the Internet, misrepresenting it as the federal government ‘making a land grab trying to force these poor people off their land.’ This has resulted in attention to the issue by groups in the lower 48 that focus on property rights and inholder rights who have joined the outcry. This is not [an] inholders or private-property rights issue. It is the right of the federal government to protect the public’s land from trespass and significant damage caused by a bulldozer.”

“It is absolutely a property-rights and inholder-rights issue,” declared Chuck Cushman, of the American Land Rights Association – after reading Arnberger’s memo. “These people are being abused by the federal government over access to their property. This kind of thing has been going on a long time. I’ve traveled the country bringing up horror stories like this, and we post them on our website.”

It was a tense two weeks. Observers across the country feared that despite assurances of “non-confrontational methods,” the NPS would bring in a SET or at the very least deploy the nine law-enforcement rangers based at Wrangell-St. Elias. As it turned out, the only ones to show up were Sharp and Neeck, and they didn’t stick around.

On June 16, the rangers and a three-man BLM survey team were helicoptered to a spot near the Marvelous Millsite. Joshua told WorldNetDaily he and one of his brothers rode their horses to the landing site, and after speaking with them a few minutes the surveyors told the rangers they needn’t stay. After loading the surveyors’ gear on the horses, the young men walked with them to the house for coffee and cookies, and spent the day helping the crew, crawling through brush looking for the ancient surveyor stakes.

That’s how it went all week. There were no confrontations – but deeper problems in the community simmer below the surface ready to burst forth, as was shown at the April 18 meeting.

Next threat – a civil lawsuit

And the Pilgrim family?

Pilgrim now has legal counsel. J.P. Tangen, co-chair of the Alaska Miners Association Federal Oversight Committee, has agreed to represent the interests of the family. Through Tangen’s efforts, Pilgrim met with Arnberger to arrange for NPS permission for access to his property within the park.

According to a memo from Tangen, Pilgrim requested temporary permission to cross Park Service lands on the McCarthy Creek Road, and asked that if granted it could remain in effect until a permanent permit was issued. He pointed out that he is disabled and is diabetic. Also, because of high water a bulldozer is the only vehicle that could make the journey to the homestead at this time.

Arnberger said an application for a permit would have to be made on Standard Form 299 and submitted to the regional office for consideration. He made no promises other than a promise to consider the application, but he did acknowledge that Pilgrim had a statutory right to access in accordance with ANILCA and NPS regulations.

In another move, the U.S. Department of Justice – acting on information received from the Department of Interior, which encompasses the National Park Service – has hit them with a notice that it’s preparing a civil lawsuit against them for having “constructed roads or trails and engaged in land clearing on park land in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park,” without authorization of the National Park Service.

“It appears that one or more members of your family used a Caterpillar bulldozer to blade a trail from the Marvelous Millsite to the Mother Lode [Mine] parcel and from the Marvellous Millsite to McCarthy,” the notice reads. Attorney Bruce Landon enclosed copies of the relevant statutes “for your convenience.”

If a lawsuit is filed, the American Land Rights Association will continue to be involved in the case – particularly through fund-raising efforts – in helping the Pilgrims defend themselves against the Goliath of a federal agency.

“These people are being abused by the Park Service,” said Cushman. “And it seems to me it’s an opportunity for people across the country to see that if they can do it to this God-fearing family that has 16 children and is living the wilderness life, plays music, and participates in the community there – if they can treat really nice people this way, heaven only knows how they’re treating everybody else.

“The problem is all the cases we don’t hear about.”

Read yesterday’s installment, “‘Pilgrim’ family butts heads with feds”

Related stories:

Debate roars over future of Yosemite

Coastal town fights road closings

Shovel Brigade takes on ‘roadless’ policy

Disabled unwelcome on California beaches

Nevada lawmaker vows to reopen road


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