Two weeks after the arrest of a 70-year-old Central man on the Yukon River by National Park Service rangers, Gov. Sean Parnell said Thursday that the state is intervening in court on the man's behalf and also petitioning the U.S. Department of the Interior to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Parnell announced the actions at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
The administration's battles with federal agencies over resource development are nothing new, Parnell said, but by targeting an individual citizen the federal government is taking it to "another level," he said.
"If we allow the federal government to do that without some kind of memorandum or some kind of legal basis, then when does it stop?" Parnell said.
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The announcement came after rangers arrested Jim Wilde Sept. 16 about 50 miles upstream of Circle on the Yukon. The rangers' boat approached Wilde's and they demanded to conduct a boat safety check, Wilde, a 50-year resident of Alaska, said Thursday by phone from his home in Central.
Wilde said it was unsafe for the rangers to attempt to board his 21-foot Woolridge, loaded with 200 gallons of fuel and hunting gear for a two-week trip, in the middle of the rushing Yukon.
"There ain't a cop anywhere in the modern world that would expect you to pull over in the middle of the highway," Wilde said. "Same in a river."
Wilde shouted at the rangers, he said, and then piloted his boat to the riverbank.
Because of the ongoing case against him, Wilde did not want to go into specifics about the arrest. But according to Wilde's attorney's account related in an Associated Press story, the two rangers trained shotguns on Wilde, his wife Hannelore, 72, and their friend 65-year-old Fred Schenk, as Wilde was headed to shore. Just after he set anchor, the rangers threw the 70-year-old to the ground and "roughed him up," attorney Bill Satterberg told the AP.
Then they went to Circle, Wilde said. One of the rangers took a handcuffed Wilde in the Park Service boat, while the other ranger took Wilde's wife and friend in Wilde's boat, he said. Wilde was then taken on to Fairbanks.
Spending four days in a Fairbanks jail worried Wilde, he said, mostly because he wasn't able to take his medication and his blood pressure was high.
Wilde pleaded not guilty to four misdemeanors: interfering with agency function, violating a lawful order, disorderly conduct and operating an unregistered boat.
The attorney general's office has filed a "friend of the court" brief on Wilde's behalf, saying the National Park Service did not have the authority to stop Wilde's boat.
The bigger issue, though, according to both Parnell and Attorney General Dan Sullivan, is a petition to the U.S. Department of the Interior to set aside Park Service regulations the state says are encroaching on Alaskans' rights as they use state waterways bordering or bisecting federal land, in this case, the Yukon-Charlie Rivers National Preserve.
"Mr. Wilde's case here arose mid-September. That generated the actual case and controversy at the time, but the concerns were there prior to Mr. Wilde's case," according to Parnell, who is running for re-election Nov. 2. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski had earlier written to National Park Service director Jonathon Jarvis asking for a full review of the incident. In a news release, Murkowski, who is fighting to keep her Senate seat, called the arrest "questionable" and the behavior of the Park Service officers "provocative."
After his four days in jail, Wilde went back out hunting, he said. He didn't get a moose this year, which means his freezer will be a little light on meat. But an opening for caribou is coming up, and people in Central tend to share whatever they have among the community, he said.
"You don't have to get your own moose every winter here," Wilde said.