JUNEAU, Alaska -- Volunteer bush pilots are flying winter supplies to a family whose cabin in the backcountry of Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve has been isolated by a dispute over use of an old road through the park.
The cabin owner, who legally changed his name from Bobby Hale to Papa Pilgrim, lives with his wife and 15 children deep within the park. He wants the right to drive a bulldozer over an old 14-mile mining road. The National Park Service so far has refused a permit.
Friends and a property-rights group called the American Land Rights Association are collecting donations and asking pilots to ferry in supplies for the winter.
"It's just beautiful," Pilgrim said by telephone from his cabin. "I cannot tell you the unity. They just poured out their hearts."
The dispute arose after Pilgrim drove his bulldozer over the road earlier this year, sometimes with the blade up and sometimes down, carving a way through the overgrowth.
The Park Service sued Pilgrim and closed the road to motorized vehicles, leaving the Pilgrims with the prospect of either traveling by horse through the upper valley of McCarthy Creek or bringing in supplies by plane. It also left them unable to ship up large or bulky quantities of supplies.
Pilgrim has tried since June 17 to get permission to use the road, said his attorney J.P. Tangen. A formal request was made in September, he said.
Part of the problem is the Park Service has to perform an environmental assessment of the route and any damage that could be done by the bulldozer. Park Superintendent Gary Candelaria said each journey requires about 13 stream crossings and park officials have to determine potential damage to spawning fish and unfrozen ground.
The family could use snowmobiles in the winter, Candelaria said.
As for the family's predicament, it isn't considered an emergency under federal regulations, Candelaria said.
"There's a lot of personal choice, personal responsibility involved in this issue," Candelaria said.
But local residents who support Pilgrim say the road through the national park is state property and should not be closed.
"The main thing we need is to be able to get past this illegal road closure by having pilots to come out," said Laurie Rowland, who lives near the Pilgrims. "This is the bush pilot's chance to be a hero and be an angel of mercy."
Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, said the Park Service was being "heavy-handed" in its treatment of people who own property surrounded by park service land such as the Pilgrims. He said he learned of Pilgrim during a radio program and offered to help.
"They are very self-sufficient people. The airlift was not their idea," Cushman said.
Donations of supplies are being collected in six Alaska cities, and volunteer pilots are being lined up. So far, three people have agreed to ferry supplies and land on the small airstrip located within Pilgrim's property, Rowland said.
Candelaria rejects claims that the Park Service is being heavy-handed or that the road is state property. Alaska has listed the road as its own under obscure federal mining statutes, but the Interior Department disagrees.
The 1866 mining claim statute allows the state to assert claim to historic rights of way across federal land. State officials have been reluctant to push the claim for this and hundreds of other routes it has identified.
Pilgrim accused the Park Service of trying to starve his family out, but said they are resolved to stay.
"I just trust before this is all over, we will all be on the same side and we are going to see the needs of people, and the basis of it all is to love each other," Pilgrim said.
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