FAIRBANKS — The chief of the National Park Service in Alaska attended a meeting in the eastern Interior village of Eagle last week and apologized for the aggressive actions of two rangers on the Yukon River last summer.
But it was not the highly publicized arrest and trial of Jim Wilde, a 71-year-old Central man, who Alaska park service director Sue Masica was talking about. Rather, she was apologizing about a run-in the same two rangers had a month earlier involving another man: Tim Henry of Eagle.
The rangers handcuffed and detained Henry for about two hours for allegedly refusing to identify himself but did not arrest him.
“It was wrong. It shouldn’t have happened,” Masica told about 35 residents who attended the meeting in the gym at the Eagle school on June 2.
“It hurt this community, and we do apologize and we need to extend an apology to him personally.”
Her words drew a round of applause from the crowd, but it remains to be seen whether her visit to Eagle will be the first stitch in mending strained relations between the park service and some of the 125 residents in the eclectic village that borders the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.
Masica went on to say the park service is committed to repairing relations with residents in the remote community at the end of the Taylor Highway, many of whom use the preserve for subsistence. The park service director said that mistakes were made last summer and that neither of the two rangers involved in the incidents will be back in the preserve.
“We know we’ve got relationships that need rebuilding,” Masica said by phone this week. “Things are pretty frayed over what happened last year. Our relationships with the community and the people who use and live in the area of the preserve are important to us and we need to rebuild them. This was an attempt to do that.”
Residents in the village near the Canada border said Masica’s appearance and apology were a start.
“We’re skeptically optimistic,” said local subsistence hunter and fisherman Don Woodruff, summing the local sentiment. “We’re moving in a positive direction, but change with the government is pretty slow.”
Relations between the park service and Eagle residents have been strained the last few years by what some in the community claim is heavy-handed treatment by rangers working in the preserve.
The situation came to a head last summer after rangers detained Henry in August and arrested Wilde a month later in a dramatic confrontation on the Yukon River in which rangers pointed guns at Wilde and his two passengers after Wilde refused to stop his boat for a safety inspection while traveling through the preserve. Wilde claims he was heading for the riverbank when one of the rangers pointed a gun at him.
The latter incident galvanized Alaskans who dispute the park service’s authority to enforce laws on state waterways such as the Yukon River.
It caught the attention of Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both of whom criticized the park service for Wilde’s arrest. Young has threatened to use his political clout to cut off funding for the preserve.
Wilde, meanwhile, ended up in federal court in April to fight three of the four misdemeanor charges against him. The four-day trial ended April 8, and a federal judge is still deliberating the case. A decision is expected any day.
A week after the Wilde trial, Yukon-Charley preserve superintendent Greg Dudgeon held a meeting in Eagle in which he said the park service will continue to conduct boat checks on the portion of the Yukon River that flows through the preserve but that rangers will do the inspections on shore, not in the river. The park service also agreed to the creation of a working group consisting of local residents to improve communications between the community and the agency.
Last week’s three-hour meeting was “a continuation of that dialogue,” Masica said. There was no discussion of the Wilde incident during the meeting, which was moderated by ranger Seth McMillan, who will be overseeing the Park Service’s ranger patrols in Eagle this summer.
Several residents expressed opinions during the meeting but people were respectful, and Masica said their passion for the subsistence lifestyles they lead was obvious.
“We understand that people are part of the landscape here and preserving that lifestyle for generations to come is what the (Park Service) is all about,” she said after the meeting.
Subsistence fishermen Andy Bassich was skeptical.
“Our lifestyle is going away because of regulations made by the entity supposedly set up to protect it,” Bassich told Masica.
Woodruff, the subsistence hunter and fisherman, pointed out that several subsistence cabins in the preserve are falling apart.
“That flies in the face of preserving this lifestyle for generations to come,” said Woodruff, who rebuilt one of the cabins on the Kandik River last summer on his own.
As far as law enforcement, McMillan said rangers will use a “low profile” and “common sense” approach in dealing with hunters and boaters in the preserve this summer.
Longtime Eagle resident John Borg said it will be interesting to see what happens.
“Their response always was they are interested in doing what they can to make amends and see that that type of behavior does not exhibit itself in the future,” he said of the park service mantra repeated at the meeting. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Louise Freeman Toole, who attended the meeting in Eagle, contributed quotes and other information for this story. Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.