Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Friday, January 23, 2004

Park Service favors compromise in Pilgrim Family feud
By MARY PEMBERTON, Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The National Park Service has carved out middle ground in the feud with a 17-member family that used a bulldozer to reopen an old road inside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

The Park Service favors granting the Pilgrim family a special-use permit to drive the bulldozer along the old mining road, but only in winter and only when the ground is snow-covered to reduce damage to America's largest national park.

The proposal sounds good, said family patriarch Papa Pilgrim, whose legal name is Robert Hale. He said Friday it would allow them to bring in supplies, including food that is in short supply. To get more food, the family is making almost daily trips on three snowmobiles to McCarthy, the nearest town 14 miles away.

"I think that is an opportunity to get our supplies home," Pilgrim said. "We have almost worked day and night to just provide the food."

The Pilgrims got in trouble with the Park Service last year when they used a bulldozer to reopen the road to McCarthy.

The Park Service responded by closing the road to motorized vehicles, and the family sued. A federal judge in Anchorage ruled that the Pilgrims needed to get a permit from the Park Service to use the road. The Park Service said it needed to complete an environmental assessment before issuing a permit.

The environmental assessment offers three possible scenarios: deny the permit, grant the permit the Pilgrims want, or grant one with conditions favored by the Park Service.

The Park Service alternative would allow for 18 one-way trips between the Pilgrim's 140-acre parcel inside the park and McCarthy. The family could use its bulldozer with trailer attached. Travel would be restricted to between October and April.

The one-year permit also requires that the ground be frozen to a minimum depth of 12 inches and covered with more than 6 inches of snow. Ice or snow bridges would be used over stream crossings. Any open water crossings would require the approval of the park superintendent.

Papa Pilgrim, 62, said the Park Service proposal is basically what the family wanted all along.

"Nobody in our family wants to harm the land any kind of way," Pilgrim said. "My family has a real interest in taking care of the national park. We really care a lot about the land. We should be able to get together to work with the park very easily."

Pilgrim said the family is used to wilderness living, but it would be nice to get fuel to run a generator and fire up chain saws to stockpile some firewood. Now, the wood is chopped daily to heat an uninsulated storage building where most of the family lives after their home burned down last April. The older children live in a 600-square foot cabin. Pilgrim and his wife, Country Rose, have 15 children, ages 1 to 28 years.

Pilgrim said the family also desperately needs large rolls of insulation to keep ice from accumulating on the inside walls. Last week, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees below zero. It was minus-15 Friday.

"We're warm. We have wood," he said. "When you need to be warm you do what you need to do."

Russell C. Brooks, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation representing the family, said his clients should not have had to go through this in the first place. Now, there will be a one-month public comment period and an additional wait for the Park Service's final decision.

"This road is basically their driveway. It is access from their home to town. Should a person need a permit to drive down their driveway?" Brooks said.

The whole affair makes the Park Service look bad, especially since they've basically come up with what the family wanted all along, said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Land Rights Association.

The group helped organize more than 60 flights last September and October to bring the family supplies.

"Alaska is losing access to its lands. The Park Service is systematically stealing access to Alaska's private and public lands," Cushman said.

The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a 13.2 million-acre federal park, which begins about 170 miles east of Anchorage and stretches to the Canadian border.