In Alaska, a Road Marked With Controversy

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007

Seldom has the prospect of building a one-lane, nine-mile gravel road caused such a furor.

On one side, proponents say isolated native Alaskans living near the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Aleutian Peninsula could die for lack of emergency medical care if federal officials do not allow the road to be built. The state supports their efforts and has agreed to donate 42,000 acres of its land for the refuge if 200 acres now in the preserve are made available for the road.

But environmentalists say the road would wreak havoc with the heart of one of the most fertile wildlife breeding and feeding sites in the nation, if not the world. It would pass along a thin isthmus between two lagoons that are the exclusive feeding grounds of the Pacific black brant, a small sea goose, and a variety of other rare or threatened waterfowl. The site was the first refuge that the United States listed 25 years ago under an international convention on wetlands.

To make the stakes even higher, environmentalists say allowing construction of the road would weaken protections for all officially designated federal wilderness areas, making them vulnerable to development whenever Congress decides to make an exception.

"If this crucial portion of Izembek can't be protected as wilderness, then wilderness everywhere is threatened," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

In addition, environmentalists say, the federal government has already spent $9 million to provide a state-of-the-art hovercraft to ferry the isolated people of King Cove across Cold Bay to an all-weather airport and emergency care. Taxpayers, they say, would be fleeced by building the redundant "road to nowhere."

Alaska's two senators and one congressman disagree strongly and have introduced bills that would exempt the road from a wilderness road-building prohibition. This is not the first time they have made the case -- the proposed Izembek road was the subject of heated debate in the late 1990s -- but proponents say that this time they stand a much better chance of succeeding.

The reason is that the hovercraft "solution" has proved unreliable and expensive. More important, they say, the unprecedented land swap offered by Alaska may be too good an offer to refuse.

There has been no new federal wilderness designated in Alaska in a quarter-century, and the offer has tempted even some earlier opponents of the road. In the Clinton administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposed the project, but the agency's position appears to have changed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said that she has been working closely with the agency and believes it supports the land swap, although an agency spokesman last week said that no official policy has been requested or developed.

"Some people hear we're talking about building a small road in a wilderness area, and, just on the face of it, they say they won't even think about doing it," Murkowski said. "Our job is to educate people, to let them know this is good for the people of King Cove and also for all Americans because the [federal government] will be getting more than 40,000 new acres of wilderness in exchange for 206."

The heart of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is the Kinzarof and Izembek lagoons, which have been a strictly protected area since 1960. The two contain some of the world's largest beds of eelgrass -- a nutritious and fast-growing plant that feeds and shelters waterfowl, young fish, crabs and other small invertebrates that are favorite meals for the lagoon's regulars, including brown bears, wolverines and river otter.

The Pacific black brant also loves eelgrass, and 98 percent of its worldwide population uses the lagoon as a feeding place during migrations. The lagoon is home as well to migrating and breeding Steller's eider (an officially threatened diving duck), tundra swans and the emperor goose.

"These are lagoons essential to a whole suite of waterfowl, and there's reason to think a road going through it could have serious and negative consequences," said Stan Senner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Alaska.

Senner, Hirsche and other opponents say the road would harm the lagoon in many ways. Construction work could disrupt the fragile ecology, the road would bring more hunters into the area and pollution from cars and trucks could harm the eelgrass and the animals.

But Della Trumble, president of the King Cove Corp. and an Aleut, said that the fears are unwarranted. Aleuts have lived in the region for 4,000 years, she said, and have been superb stewards of the environment. The people of King Cove -- about 550 full-time Aleut and non-Aleut residents -- feel so strongly about building the road that they have offered to give the refuge another fertile lagoon on nearby tribal land.

"What we want is simple -- a safe and direct way to get from King Cove to the airport for medical emergencies," she said. "We were not consulted when the wildlife refuge was set up, and so our needs weren't taken into consideration. That just isn't fair."

Congress has indirectly acknowledged that point, and lawmakers thought they had solved the problem in 1998 with a compromise bill that allocated $37.5 million toward building a medical facility for King Cove, a road to a landing and a hovercraft to take residents across the bay to Cold Bay Airport, even in bad weather.

But Trumble and other King Cove officials say the plan has not worked out. The community -- on a small strip of land below a snow-covered volcano -- has been unable to attract a doctor, has had difficulty keeping the hovercraft running, especially in bad weather, and says the cost of operating and maintaining it is far beyond its means. Soon after the hovercraft went into partial operation last year, some town leaders raised the possibility of selling it.

Further complicating the equation is the presence of a large fish cannery in King Cove. Opponents of the road fear that it might someday want to truck salmon, salmon roe and king crab (as well as its many transient workers) to and from Cold Bay Airport.

The opponents worry that the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery, one of the largest in North America, is the hidden force behind the current push. That Peter Pan has been a timely campaign contributor to both sponsors of the bill, Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), adds to their concern.

But advocates of the road say that Peter Pan plays no role in their efforts, and that they are working only to give native people reliable access to emergency care. In an interview, Peter Pan manager Dale Schwarzmiller said the company has no plans to use the road if built, but he did not rule out the possibility of trucking fish to Cold Bay Airport in the future.

Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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