- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

The Pacific Legal Foundation, in a lawsuit filed yesterday, accused the National Park Service of trying to force a family to abandon its Alaska ranch, which is surrounded by federally owned property, by closing a mining road in violation of state and federal laws.

“The Park Service wants to starve out and crush the Pilgrim family,” said Russ Brooks, managing lawyer for the PLF. The 17-member Pilgrim family uses the road to haul supplies from the nearest town, 15 miles away.

The family bought the 400-plus-acre property in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve two years ago. The Pilgrims used a small bulldozer on the road, blade up, and also maintained it.

The service contends the vehicle harms fish spawning in a creek, which the road crosses numerous times.

A spokesman for the National Park Service Alaska region said it is preparing a lawsuit against the family for illegally using the bulldozer on park property.

“We believe the route that was cleared does not coincide with the [roads] historical route. What we have is clearing of a public national park,” said spokesman John Quinley.

The PLF’s lawsuit on behalf of the family, filed in Anchorage, says the rugged road was established by the Kennecott Mining Co. more than 100 years ago and is protected as an existing right under federal law. It was used by the Pilgrim family until April, when the Park Service closed the road without public notice or hearing.

“For the Pilgrims, access means survival, and they must have this road to survive,” Mr. Brooks said. The family, led by Robert Hale, has changed its surname to Pilgrim.

The Park Service conducted a survey of potential environmental damage that critics said cost the government $350,000 and caused more damage than the bulldozer.

“They are wasting and destroying the environment to crush this family,” said Mike Hardiman, spokesman for the American Land Rights Association.

Mr. Quinley said the extent of the damage learned from the survey would be revealed during court proceedings. “I know it has been an expensive process, because of the difficulty of accessing the area and to move the appropriate people to do the work,” he said.

Heavily armed park rangers guarded federal scientists who were conducting the field work. That didn’t warm relations with the family, which Mr. Quinley said has refused to meet with the Park Service on the issue.

The road is used by other residents, but is essentially the family’s driveway, extending to the town of McCarthy.

Nearly stranded, the family now relies on two horses for transportation. Volunteers have made 60 airplane trips to deliver supplies and help the family prepare for winter. One such plane crashed.

But supporters say temporary airlift assistance is not enough.

The road was closed just days after the family’s house burned to the ground, and rebuilding is impossible without use of the road. The Pilgrims are living in a makeshift house, that some doubt will provide enough warmth for winter.

Mr. Brooks said the timing of the closure “is not a coincidence.”

“It’s a federal land grab. They don’t want people living in national parks,” Mr. Brooks said. “This is their own personal brand of religion where they worship trees.”

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