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Alaskan fined $2,500 over Yukon River showdown with Feds

How much does it cost if National Park Service rangers determine you're a flight risk in the middle of the roily Yukon River, and you refuse demands to immediately stop your riverboat?

Jim Wilde, a 71-year-old from the Interior village of Central, learned Friday it will cost him $2,500. That's what a federal judge fined Wilde, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, for refusing to allow rangers aboard his boat after he'd been flagged down mid-river in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

Wilde was convicted in October for interfering with a federal agency function, violating a lawful order and operating an unregistered boat, according to the 31-page ruling handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott Oravec.

In that opinion, Oravec made comments that have given many civil libertarians pause. "The facts tend to show that Mr. Wilde interfered with the Rangers' attempt to do (their) duty," Oravec wrote. Some have questioned whether facts that "tend to show" meet legal the standard of proof, although the judge does declare that those "tend to'' facts proved "beyond a reasonable doubt that the Rangers were engaged in an official duty ... and that Mr. Wilde willfully interfered with their attempt to perform their official duties."

Wilde's attorney, Bill Satterberg, tried to argue the rangers lacked authority on the river. The state and the Park Service are now in court on another case fighting over exactly that issue. Oravec ruled before trial in the Wilde case that rangers did have authority, but he went a step beyond that in convicting Wilde.

In finding Wilde guilty of violating a lawful order from rangers, Oravec wrote that "there is no serious dispute that the Rangers' order was lawful. Mr. Wilde contends that it was both unsafe and ill-advised; yet he makes no showing that it was 'unlawful.'"

Was Wilde's disobedience a political gesture? Did he believe, as Oravec noted, that the Rangers "should have lacked the authority to inspect his vessel"? These are key aspects of the case, lawyers have told Alaska Dispatch, because no one is bound to obey an order from a federal bureaucrat if they have legitimate reason to believe the order unlawful. Satterberg has said Wilde may yet appeal the conviction.

In Wilde's case, his attorney argued that rangers' order was both unlawful and dangerous, and that Wilde decided the best thing to do was point his riverboat toward the Yukon's shore in order to meet with rangers there to discuss the matter. They in turn chased him, pointed a shotgun at him and his passengers, tackled him on shore, handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail a day's journey away. Things have not been quite the same along the river north of Fairbanks since.

Oravec denied Wilde a trial by jury, citing the relatively petty nature of the crimes. Despite that assessment, the Wilde case proved one of the most contentious in memory, provoking Alaskans across the state to question whether the federal government -- and Park Service officials in particular -- routinely overstep their authority at the expense of the rights of state residents, particularly those living in rural areas.

The News-Miner reports that Satterberg is "evaluating an appeal" based in large part whether the rangers had jurisdiction on the river. Read the News-Miner's report here. The Yukon is a "navigable" water. Most navigable waters became state land at Statehood. The state is arguing that because of that it, not the Park Service, has jurisdiction over the Yukon.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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