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Young's Yukon-Charley preserve provision criticized

Richard Mauer
Jim Wilde, 70, sits handcuffed Sept. 16, 2010, on the bank of the Yukon River after National Park Service rangers arrested him on four misdemeanor charges. Photo by Fred Schenk

The National Park Service's Alaska region is warning that Yukon-Charley National Preserve could be opened to dredge mining and closed to subsistence fishing under a provision inserted into the Interior Department budget bill by Rep. Don Young.

Young's provision, Section 116, was the subject of a blustery, 37-minute debate on the House floor Wednesday when a Democrat from Washington state, Rep. Norm Dicks, tried to strip it from the budget. Dicks' amendment failed in the Republican-controlled House.

Young, R-Alaska, said Section 116 was designed to restrict the Park Service from conducting the kind of boat safety inspections that led to a confrontation between rangers and a 70-year-old Central resident in September.

But the Park Service analysis, released by the agency Friday in response to a request by the Daily News, said the wording of Section 116's two sentences could extend its effects well beyond what Young says was his intent.

"While the report statement indicates the language addresses jurisdiction related to safe boating on the Yukon River, the House bill language is substantially broader," the Alaska region's analysis said.

The agency warned that the provision would prevent the Interior Department from issuing federal subsistence openings or closings on the 108-mile section of the Yukon that flows through the preserve. It would also prevent enforcement of catch limits in the 2.5 million-acre preserve and preclude the agency from implementing salmon treaty obligations with Canada, which borders the preserve on the east.

Gold dredging was a historic activity in the area and the Park Service warned it could resume.

"The House language would preclude enforcement of NPS regulations prohibiting mining if the mining only occurred on preserve waters (such as a floating suction dredge)," the analysis said.

And with almost no other police force in the remote area, rangers would be "unable to take actions to ensure visitor and resource safety on waters within the preserve," such as enforcing rules against drunken boating or requiring life jackets on children.

Young's measure has its roots in the confrontation last September between two rangers and Jim Wilde, who was operating a 21-foot boat on the Yukon with his wife and a friend aboard.

The rangers wanted to board the boat to conduct a safety inspection. Wilde admitted cursing them and motoring away.

He said he was only trying to get to shore so the inspection could be accomplished safely, but also acknowledged that he was challenging the authority of the rangers.

The rangers drew weapons and eventually handcuffed Wilde and hauled him to jail in Fairbanks.

The Park Service has acknowledged the two rangers in question had used excessive force on at least one other occasion. In June, the regional director of the agency, Sue Masica, traveled to Eagle to formally apologize to residents and said those two rangers will never return to the preserve.

Wilde was charged with four misdemeanors, including violating a lawful order and disorderly conduct. His trial before a federal magistrate judge in Fairbanks was held in April. The case was heard without a jury, and the judge has not yet issued a verdict.

Young's response showed up in the Interior appropriation bill now being heard on the House floor.

Section 116 prohibits the department from spending any money "to implement or enforce regulations concerning boating and other activities on or relating to waters within Yukon-Charley National Preserve."

Park Service spokesman John Quinley said it was the words, "and other activities," that appeared to expand the scope of the measure beyond boat inspections.

The Park Service analysis was only recently drafted and has not yet worked its way through the Interior Department in Washington or to Congress, Quinley said.

The debate on the House floor Wednesday focused primarily on whether Congress should interfere with Park Service rules because of two overly aggressive rangers who had already been disciplined.

Meredith Kenny, Young's spokeswoman, said Young was too busy to comment Friday. But on the House floor Wednesday, he defended the section when Dicks and other Democrats tried to remove it.

"The Park Service in Alaska has become, very frankly, like, I would say, an occupied army of a free territory," Young said. He declared that the Yukon River is state water and the Park Service has no business enforcing its rules there.

The Parnell administration made that same argument when it filed a friend of the court brief in Wilde's case in Fairbanks.

Rejecting the argument, Magistrate Judge Scott Oravec said whether the state his title to the river is irrelevant -- the Park Service has the right to enforce its rules within Yukon-Charley's boundaries.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said if an officer abuses his authority, the appropriate remedy is to discipline the officer.

"These kinds of things happen all over the country," Moran said. "Normally we don't change national policy to deal with misconduct on the part of the certain individuals, and that's what you're trying to do."

Young's provision remains in the appropriation bill, which could reach a vote as early as next week. From there, it would face an uncertain future in the Senate.

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.