ANCHORAGE, Alaska (April 19, 2006) -- Larry Csonka's mother used to tell him, "Don't make a federal case out of it." Now, he says, he knows what she meant.
Csonka, the host of a cable television show filmed in Alaska, was fined $5,000 for conducting commercial work in a national forest without obtaining a special use permit, a case he said could have been handled administratively.
"The National Forest Service and the prosecutor's office wanted to make an example out of it," he said.
Csonka is host of NAPA's North to Alaska, a show that appears weekly on OLN and features fishing, hunting, history and customs from around the state.
He called his prosecution "going to the guillotine for running a traffic light."
In January, Csonka reached an agreement to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of filming on national forest land without proper permits, once on Mitkoff Island in 2002 and once last year near Cordova.
Besides fining Csonka the maximum $2,500 on each count, federal Magistrate John Roberts ordered him to pay $3,887 in restitution and placed him on probation for one year. That could be shortened once Csonka completes a public service announcement using footage shot in the Cordova area violation.
Retta Randall, an assistant U.S. attorney, said Csonka and his company, Zonk! Productions, were warned in the first incident that they needed a permit.
"They were told to go to the office to get a permit retroactively," she said. "That did not happen."
In the second, she said, Csonka claimed he relied on a lodge owner to vouch that the area in which filming occurred was not on Forest Service land.
"Frankly, the lodge owner does not do the filming," she said.
She acknowledged that the case would likely be noted by others who use Forest Service land.
"The fine is basically to sort of get his attention, but more importantly, it's to send a message to other film makers who use this land," Randall said.
Audrey Bradshaw, executive producer of the show, said 26 episodes of Csonka's show have been produced annually over nine seasons. Many were shot on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or Native Alaskans' land, and that the company consistently has obtained necessary permits, she said.
"There was no intent of skirting the law," she said.
The first incident in 2002 resulted from a miscommunication between a crew in the field and the Zonk! Productions office, Csonka said after sentencing.
"The check was supposed to be sent in," he said. "We thought it had. By the time the accountant caught it, it was too late."
The production company itself reported the second incident after filming scene-setting shots near a glacier and spotting a Forest Service truck drive by.
Csonka said Alaska's patchwork pattern of land ownership creates confusion for people operating in rural Alaska, where ownership can vary widely along a single river.
"I've relied heavily on the information of locals in the areas we visit but in most cases they're as confused about the invisible boundaries of the national forests as I am," he said.
Csonka's attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, asked Roberts to impose no fine. Between restitution, fees, and possible loss of sponsorships, the demands of the law had been satisfied, he said.
Judge Roberts, however, used a football analogy to address Csonka. He told the Hall of Fame fullback that he needed a game plan in researching land ownership and obtaining permits before taking to the field.
"The way of doing business does not give you license to disregard the law," Roberts said.