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Dispute over Pilgrims' camp takes an unneighborly turn

Tom Kizzia
A goat wanders around the Pilgrim family's camp in the town of McCarthy. The camp, a sprawl of wooden shelters, a shack, a trailer and draped tarps, is on a public right of way and the source of neighborhood resentment.
Marc Lester
Elishaba leads the Pilgrim family's horses through the town of McCarthy. Locals say the horses have escaped several times to graze at the airstrip, aggravating local pilots.
Marc Lester

After a summer of growing tension in McCarthy, one of the Pilgrim family's two right-of-way disputes appears to be coming to a head this weekend. Local landowners say they are ready to use a bulldozer to clear a public right of way in the middle of town where the large, Bible-toting family has maintained a camp for two years.

Alaska State Troopers, who have been alerted to Saturday's showdown, say they have been assured by the landowners they will press the point with a lawsuit, not a bulldozer blade, if the family refuses to move. Neighbors say they are frustrated by the sprawling camp in their midst.

"The fact that McCarthy is united on this is astounding," said local landowner Jeremy Keller, citing a long tradition of leaving each other alone. "It indicates we are completely fed up and we can't let it be any longer."

The Pilgrim family patriarch attributed the faceoff to continuing harassment from the National Park Service, which has battled the family over its efforts to gain bulldozer access to its land 13 miles inside the park. Papa Pilgrim, whose legal name is Robert Hale, on Wednesday said park employees had "incited the local people" against his 17-member family.

"This is a national park attack against the Pilgrims again," he said.

But he said the family had found land where they could eventually move their camp. That could defuse a situation that has prompted even some of the family's local supporters to sign a petition asking them to move.

"Your continued homesteading of that public area with farm animals, vehicles and your large family is clearly not in the best interest of the community," the petition said.

The showdown caps a summer of friction between the Pilgrim family and some McCarthy neighbors, which has resulted in two assault charges against area residents and a trooper visit to town over a reported "mooning" incident.

Meanwhile the Pilgrims' better-known right-of-way dispute, against Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, remains on appeal in federal court. The Hales, with the backing of a national land-rights organization, contend federal law should allow them to use a historic but overgrown road to reach their land inside the park. The family has rejected a road permit proffered by the park, saying it is laden with impractical restrictions.

That dispute continues to divide area residents. Some see the Pilgrims as victims of an environmental bureaucracy out to expel residents from the park. Others see them as whiners, seeking special treatment and public donations to support an arduous backcountry lifestyle other families manage on their own.

While the dispute in federal court has national implications, the dispute over the townsite right of way has been strictly a local matter -- though one fraught with irony.

Even as the park blocks the Pilgrims' desire for overland access to their homestead land, the family's town camp has blocked a legal access to the home of Stephens Harper, a national park ranger living in McCarthy. Harper organized the bulldozer showdown for Saturday. He was working in the field this week and could not be reached.

Keller said the purpose of the bulldozing was to get the Pilgrims to move, not to build a new road to Harper's cabin, which has a driveway from a different direction.

The Pilgrims' town camp was born when they bought 420 acres of mining land up McCarthy Creek in 2002. They said the miner who sold the land included a small cabin in town for their use as part of the sale. But the miner said there was no such deal and he didn't own the town lot where the small cabin was located.

Under pressure from the real landowner, the family moved the cabin, along with their vehicles and horses and tents, onto the adjacent right of way, where they remain two years later.

Papa Pilgrim said Wednesday the family had planned to haul most of the gear by bulldozer to their land, only to be stopped when Harper notified his park bosses of their intention and the historic road was closed. But the family also has said they need a base in town to make money during the brief summer with its influx of tourists.

This summer, the Pilgrims have been offering horse rides in the McCarthy area and providing a van shuttle service to the Kennecott mill, in competition with two existing shuttles. The family staked out another space in a public right of way -- at the end of the 58-mile gravel road to McCarthy, where a footbridge leads into town -- to sell their services.

In a town with only a few score summer residents, the Pilgrim presence grated with some. One resident, Mark Wacht, was charged with assault last month after trying to pass the Pilgrim van on the right and ending up in a ditch. The owner of a campground at the end of the road, Steve Syren, was charged with assault after throwing a chair and backpack, reportedly striking two Pilgrim children who were selling services at the footbridge in front of his business. Syren had been a partner with the Pilgrims before a falling out.

Pilgrim critics said the family -- who summoned the troopers both times -- appeared to be goading others.

"By all appearances, they're trying to get people to lose their cool," Keller said. "It is as aggressive as passive gets."

The Pilgrims also called the troopers when one of their vans was reportedly "mooned" by a summer resident who turned his backside to them. That incident came after the Pilgrims levelled complaints around town about summer employees swimming nude in a sun-warmed pothole by the glacial Kennicott River.

A trooper who made the long drive to McCarthy determined that the swimmers had worn swimming suits and the alleged mooning hadn't amounted to indecent exposure, Glennallen trooper Sgt. Duane Stone said.

"There were a lot of little petty things going on, and they were picking at each other," Stone said. "We wanted to make our presence known."

Stone said he didn't expect to send a trooper to the bulldozer showdown Saturday because he'd been assured that confrontation would not be pushed. He said the adjacent landowners felt they needed to take a first step to make their case in court.


By Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News