FAIRBANKS — The National Park Service will continue checking boats on the Yukon River this summer in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, but rangers will focus those inspections on shore, not mid-river.
Whether or not the two rangers who arrested and handcuffed a 71-year-old Central man for refusing to stop for a boat check last summer will be conducting any of those checks, however, is uncertain.
Preserve superintendent Greg Dudgeon said this week he doesn’t know if rangers Joe Dallemolle and Ben Grodjesk will be working in the preserve this summer. The two rookie rangers were at the center of a highly publicized trial in Fairbanks last week that pitted the Park Service against
71-year-old Jim Wilde, the man who refused to stop for a boat check last September on a section of the Yukon River that runs through the preserve.
The trial, which concluded last Friday and is now in a federal magistrate’s hands, revealed that Dallemolle pointed a pistol and shotgun at Wilde, his 74-year-old wife, Hannelore, and 66-year-old friend, Fred Schenk, when Wilde refused to stop for a boat check in the middle of the river and turn his engine off. Wilde claimed it was unsafe to shut down his heavily loaded boat in the middle of the river and said he was heading for shore when Dallemolle pointed his pistol and then a shotgun at him and at his passengers. The two rangers testified that Dallemolle drew weapons because Wilde swerved his boat at them at one point during a brief chase.
Once on shore, the two rangers tackled Wilde and threatened him with Tasers before handcuffing him and transporting him to Fairbanks Correctional Center, where he remained four days before being released.
Wilde pleaded not guilty and challenged the four misdemeanor charges against him, culminating in last week’s four-day trial in Fairbanks.
Meeting in Eagle
During an almost three-hour meeting in the Yukon River village of Eagle last week, Dudgeon told residents in the community closest to the preserve that the Park Service will continue patrolling the river and doing boat and hunter checks as it has done the past three years.
He also indicated the two rangers were scheduled to return to work in the preserve this summer, which prompted an angry response from the audience, according to Ann Millard of local radio station KEAA, who attended the meeting.
Don Woodruff, who has had a Park Service-permitted cabin on the Kandik River for the past 35 years, said bringing either one of the two rangers back to Eagle would “guarantee” more confrontations between residents and rangers. He said the decision to bring in new rangers was a “no-brainer.”
In a phone interview earlier this week, Dudgeon was less clear about whether either of the two rangers involved in the Wilde incident would return to the preserve, a vast wilderness area east of Fairbanks that stretches to the Canada border and is bisected by the Yukon River.
Dallemolle was a temporary ranger and hasn’t applied to come back this year, Dudgeon said. Grodjesk, a full-time ranger who spent part of last summer in Eagle, has not been assigned a post for the coming season but will likely work in either the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve or Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve northeast of Fairbanks.
“We are trying to ascertain where our needs are,” Dudgeon said.
The superintendent also said rangers will “place a greater emphasis on shore contacts” rather than stopping boaters in the middle of the river, as they tried to do with Wilde.
“We’re not going to get in the way of a person out there who is navigating the rivers and is not having a problem,” he said.
At the same time, Dudgeon said, “If it’s necessary to make a stop of boaters, we could and would do that.”
“We’ve got national mandates and requirements,” he said, without elaborating on what those mandates and requirements are. “We have a job to do out there.”
Several of the 42 residents at the meeting said the Park Service should not be patrolling the river because it’s a state, not federal, matter. Park Service officials say — and courts have agreed — that their agency has jurisdiction on navigable state waterways that flow through federal land.
One of the messages Dudgeon took from the meeting is, “it’s not so much what you’re doing as it is the tone and tenor of how you’re doing it.” He said his goal is to improve communication between the Park Service and preserve users.
“We need to make sure law enforcement coming into these communities has the sort of ability to be effective and has a good working rapport with community members,” Dudgeon said.
Dudgeon characterized the meeting in Eagle, a community of about 150 residents 12 miles east of the preserve, as “mostly a listening session.”
“We wanted to hear what local folks were thinking,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to talk to them and tell them what we’re looking at down the road.”
Eagle resident Mike Sager said the meeting appeared to be an attempt to “mend some bridges.”
“The perception people (in Eagle) have of the Park Service is not good at this point,” Sager said.
Bringing either one of the two rangers that were involved in the Wilde incident back to work in the preserve this summer would be counter-productive unless the goal of the Park Service is prove it can’t be influenced by public opinion, Sager said.
“If they want to make that point, leave them here,” he said.
And while the Park Service claims the boat checks are about safety, Sager called them “superfluous and annoying.”
“They seem like a good reason to stop you at any given time,” he said. “The whole idea (of the preserve) is to manage for future generations but with as little intrusion as possible. If you stop somebody on a regular basis and expect them to be cooperative, that’s an intrusion on your experience out there.”
The Park Service plans to move one of its senior rangers, Seth McMillan, to Eagle for the summer and fall seasons. One of McMillan’s primary roles will be to mentor younger rangers and provide oversight in the Park Service’s day-to-day operation, including river patrols, Dudgeon said. McMillan also will meet with residents in local communities such as Eagle, Central, Circle and Tok to hear concerns they have regarding how the Park Service is operating.
Moving McMillan, who is generally well-liked, to Eagle is a good move, Sager said. But he added that it will take more to gain the trust of locals.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “They’re not going to solve this quickly. There’s too much bad blood.”
Willing to work
The Park Service is also establishing a “working group” selected by and consisting of residents to advise the agency on issues in the preserve. The group will be similar to subsistence commissions that advise national parks on subsistence matters.
While members of the Eagle Fish and Game Advisory Committee will make up the core of the group, Dudgeon said all residents are invited to join.
Woodruff, the Kandik River cabin owner, is a member of the Eagle advisory committee. He said he likes the idea of a working group — assuming the Park Service is willing to listen to its recommendations.
The three main reasons the preserve was established was to preserve peregrine falcon habitat, mining history and subsistence use, Woodruff said.
The Park Service has done a good job protecting bird habitat and preserving the area’s mining history by restoring several historic mining cabins and roadhouses, he said, “but they haven’t done much with subsistence.”
During the meeting last week, several residents said the Park Service is not acting in their best interests and doesn’t respect their rights as in-holders or subsistence users in the preserve, according to Millard, of the radio station. Woodruff was one of those residents.
“I just want to see my kids and grandkids able to use the preserve,” he said. “I don’t want it to become their park. It’s the people’s park.
“We’re willing to work with the Park Service,” he added.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.