After decades of flouting the law, 'game is over,' Ely mayor says
The mayor of Ely was sentenced in federal court in Duluth on Tuesday after pleading guilty to driving his snowmobile in a federal wilderness area and entering the wilderness without a permit.
Roger Skraba also was sentenced for breaking into a U.S. Forest Service shed and stealing a portable toilet, which he had hidden. He was ordered to help federal agents recover the toilet and to show them any illegal campsites he has been involved with in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
"Such conduct is inexcusable and without any possible justification,'' prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's office said in a brief to the court.
Skraba, 48, pleaded guilty to the offenses in March, three years after being caught and ticketed on Crooked Lake on March 22, 2007. He was fined $3,630, sentenced to 40 hours of community service and given two years probation by federal Magistrate Judge Raymond Erickson.
But Erickson stopped short of banning Skraba from the BWCAW for three years, as the Forest Service had sought, saying it would hurt his ability to earn a living as a fishing guide.
Testifying before he was sentenced, Skraba told the judge that "the game is over'' and that he will no longer illegally enter the BWCAW or challenge federal rules.
"I want to apologize, to the people and to you. I know I have not done it since (2007). I know I won't do it again,'' said Skraba, lamenting an increase in federal border agents patrolling in jets, unmanned drone aircraft and boats. "The game is over. It's foolish. I've had a life of this (hostility against federal regulations) and it is so done... It's time to change. It's not fun any more.''
Prosecutors had sought up to $15,000 in fines for the three Class-B misdemeanors, citing Skraba's long record of similar violations. But Skraba's court-appointed public defender, Reggie Aligada, said Skraba could not afford a high fine. Judge Erickson noted Skraba already is facing action by the Internal Revenue Service over back taxes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Bryan said this isn't Skraba's first offense, citing a history of violations dating back to 1978. Skraba was charged in 1980, 1983, 1990 and 1994 with illegal entry into the wilderness along with illegal motorboat and snowmobile activity. Prosecutors also noted that Skraba was convicted in Ontario court for illegal operation of an all-terrain vehicle in Quetico Provincial Park, also a motorless wilderness.
"Each of these registers a disdain to the government and a disdain to the Boundary Waters,'' Erickson said of Skraba's record. The judge added that Skraba should serve his community service by teaching young people to "respect the BWCAW.'' Having the local mayor "being identified with the preservation of the BWCAW will have a tremendous affect.''
After the hearing, Skraba told the News Tribune that attitudes are "slowly changing'' in Ely to accept federal wilderness regulations and that it has taken more than one generation since more stringent BWCAW regulations went into effect in 1978 for local people to adapt.
"They need to understand that it takes time for the next generations to come who didn't know what it was like before things changed,'' Skraba said.
The guilty pleas and sentencing do not appear to be serious enough to require Skraba to vacate his post as mayor. According to the League of Minnesota Cities, a city official would have to be found guilty of a felony before being forced to leave office, unless a lesser crime is a violation of the official's oath of office.
"The council hasn't discussed it at all. And I don't think there is anything in the city charter that would allow us to address it,'' said Warren Nikkola, an Ely city councilor. "It's not a felony crime, so if he wants to remain mayor, that's his decision.''
Skraba's is the latest high-profile incident involving Ely area residents who ignore or challenge federal wilderness rules and laws, although his is the only one involving a local official. Skraba was not mayor in 2007 but had been mayor before that offense and is once again.
Some local residents still hold resentment against Congressional action more than 30 years ago designating nearly 1 million acres of the 2 million-acre Superior National Forest off limits to most motor uses.
Several Ely-area men cited that resentment in August, 2007 as one reason they used firearms, fireworks and verbal threats of rape and murder to terrorize campers one night on Basswood Lake. Each suspect eventually pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
Erickson warned Skraba to accept federal laws on how the BWCAW is managed.
"The national interest says that is going to happen,'' the judge said.