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Park Service may lose authority over Wilde Alaska river showdown

Craig Medred

The battle for the Yukon River took another turn on Tuesday when the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations approved legislation banning the National Park Service from enforcing regulations on that international waterway running through the heart of the Yukon-Charley National Preserve.

Angry about the handcuffing of an elderly Alaskan on the river last fall, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, managed to attach the language to the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, according to a statement from the congressman. Whether a ban on federal law enforcement on the Yukon ever becomes law remains to be seen.

The park service and the state of Alaska have been locked in a showdown on the Yukon since rangers confronted 70-year-old Jim Wilde on the river in September 2010.

They wanted to check his boat registration and ask him a few questions. Wilde, a strong-willed military veteran and Interior Alaska resident, decided he wasn't going to stop to chat in the middle of the fast-flowing river. Everything went downhill from there.

Wilde took off. He said at a trial earlier this year in Fairbanks that he was simply headed for shore to beach his boat so he and the rangers could talk safely on the riverbank.

The rangers gave chase. They said at trial that they didn't know what was going on, but thought Wilde might be trying to flee upriver for Canada -- a day's run and a boatload of gas away.

During the chase, things got a little crazy. Rangers said they signaled for Wilde, who had his wife and an elderly friend in the boat, to stop. He didn't. Rangers then pointed guns at the people in the boat. Wilde kept going for the beach anyway. There, he said at trial, he got out of his boat and marched over to rangers to chat.

According to testimony from the rangers at trial, Wilde got out of his boat and charged at them in a threatening manner.

The young rangers jumped the old man, got him to the ground, handcuffed him, and then took him on a lengthy road trip by boat and then truck back to Fairbanks, where he spent three days in jail, before he was released on bail. Eventually, Wilde was charged with four federal misdemeanors: interfering with an agency function, violating a lawful order, disorderly conduct and operating an unregistered boat.

Wilde pleaded not guilty.

There was a trial in Fairbanks in April before a federal magistrate, who has yet to rule on Wilde's alleged crimes. The judge did, however, deny a request from Wilde's attorney to dismiss the charges on the premise that the National Park Service had no authority over the Yukon.

The state Department of Law had filed a friend of court brief in support of Wilde's claim arguing the actions by rangers constituted "unwarranted intrusions by federal agents" on navigable state waterways.

The state and the park service are engaged in a long-running disagreement over who has authority over navigable waters and the land beneath them within the tens of millions of acres of new parks created by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The act, which was as widely unpopular in the 49th state as it was widely popular in the all of the other states, opened wounds that have yet to heal. After the Wilde trial ended, Fairbanks residents held a "Fed Up With the Fed'' rally to protest what they believed to be heavy-handed law enforcement by the park service and other federal agents in Alaska.

Now comes the move by Young, the Congressman for All Alaska, as he puts it. Young is the 49th state's sole representative in the U.S. House. A seemingly unstoppable force in Alaska politics, he has won reelection to the House every two years since 1974. He is now the body's sixth ranking member and the second ranking Republican, which gives him considerable political pull. He used it to put the heat on the park service in the Interior:

I am very pleased that my colleagues were able to see the glaring overreach by the park service in Yukon-Charley. The inclusion of my request (to forbid NPS enforcement on the Yukon River) is important to preserving the freedoms of Alaskans, and to protecting ANILCA. This legislation also includes many important provisions that will encourage commerce and development in Alaska, such as the language to eliminate needless permitting delays. … Even though I do not sit on the Interior Appropriations Committee, I have had many discussions with my colleagues over these issues. Despite being unable to fund particular constituent projects of interest in this year's appropriations bills, I am still able to voice my concerns about the infringement of freedoms in Alaska to develop our own resources, take full advantage of our parks and lands in a responsible manner, support our people, and continue to build our economy. This is important legislation for our state, and I look forward to voting for its final passage when it reaches the House floor.

The park service, meanwhile, is sticking to its guns on the issue of enforcement in Yukon-Charley. It says it has the authority, but has promised to try to be a little friendlier to the few people who use the wild Yukon between the Canadian border and the Interior Alaska outpost of Circle.

Park Service Regional Director Sue Masica traveled to the small, riverside community of Eagle in June to meet with the locals and tell them the NPS wanted to forge a better relationship.

In the month since, there have been no reports of confrontations between rangers and the few people who live along or travel the Yukon, one of the nation's least traveled rivers.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com