For nearly 20 years, Alaskan politicians have lobbied the federal government to construct a roughly 20-mile gravel road connecting the tiny village of King Cove to the larger town of Cold Bay, so its 750 year-round residents could have access to an all-weather airport in case of medical emergencies. Like many remote communities, King Cove has no road out, relying on air and marine transport.
But the Interior Department has repeatedly rebuffed the efforts to construct a road, on the grounds that it would damage the refuge by fragmenting its habitat and introducing noise and air pollution into an area off-limits to vehicle traffic.
Della Trumble, finance manager for the King Cove Native Corporation, said she has spent 35 years prodding officials to construct the road.
“In my mind, it shouldn’t have gone on as long as it has,” Trumble said, adding that taxpayer-funded initiatives such as a state-of-the-art telemedicine center have not solved the town’s problems. “That has helped, but we’re still in the position where if you have a medical emergency, we’re limited in what we’re doing here until we can transport them to Anchorage.”
King Cove had proposed exchanging 13,000 acres of its land and an additional 43,000 acres of state land in exchange for 206 acres from the refuge and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Sitkinak Island.
Ninety-five percent of the refuge was designated wilderness in 1980. It boasts a three-mile wide isthmus with lagoons on either side, and is home to the endangered sea duck Steller’s eiders as well as tundra swans, brown bears, foxes and other wildlife. Nearly every Pacific black brant in the world goes through there.
The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the idea of an exchange, releasing a final environmental impact statement on Feb. 5. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who agreed to meet with King Cove residents Thursday, must make a final decision next month on what is in the public interest.
“The weight of this scientific evidence demonstrates that building a road through the refuge would irretrievably damage the ecological functions of the refuge and impair its ability to provide vital support for native wildlife,” Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe said in a statement.
Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has used Jewell’s nomination as an opportunity to press the case of King Cove residents one more time. In a phone conversation with Jewell on Feb. 7, according to her spokesman Robert Dillon, Murkowski told the nominee, “I will use every tool in my toolbox to make sure this is resolved.”