Proposed Road in Refuge Raises Fears About Drilling

By Matthew Mosk and Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 9, 2008

COLD BAY, Alaska -- This isolated outpost, where grizzly bears outnumber people and the one-page phone book is dubbed "the yellow page," is fast emerging as a flash point in the nation's debate over drilling.

A plan to construct about 20 miles of road, half of which would be in the wilderness of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, has turned into a heated battle between area residents, who say they need better access to the airport here, and environmentalists, who suspect, without concrete evidence, that the oil industry is secretly behind the effort.

In a state still recovering from the bruising fight over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, all eyes have turned to Congress, which is expected to vote during a lame-duck session this month on a land swap that would open the way for road construction.

The road proposal began more than a decade ago as a strictly local concern. Aleut residents of a nearby fishing hamlet sought a single-lane gravel road so they could travel over land to Cold Bay's airport, the only one in the region capable of airlifting sick people to hospitals during unpredictable hurricane-force winds and blinding snows.

Critics see other motives.

"The premise for this road is absurd," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which opposes the road as an unprecedented intrusion into a federal preserve. "It won't work as advertised and won't save lives. The only way it makes any sense at all is if you tie it to oil and gas development."

But residents who live on the other side of the refuge, across an inlet, in the 800-person village of King Cove simply point to the wreckage of small planes that failed to reach their narrow gravel airstrip and now litter Mount Dutton, a dormant volcano.

"Go up and look at that graveyard," said Herman "Buddy" Bendixen, 83, an Aleut elder and lifelong resident. "They got sick and couldn't get out."

Without question, the residents of King Cove endure in perilous isolation. Parents forbid teenagers to jog alone, fearing bear attacks. The sun shines fewer than 60 days a year. Access to the village is by air or by sea and is dependent on the weather.

A decade ago, town officials appealed to Congress for an escape route. Lawmakers rejected the idea of a road but provided $37 million to buy a hovercraft to shuttle sick residents to safety and to fund other health-care improvements.

But the push for a road continued. To build it, the state needed to acquire 200 acres of land in a narrow strip through the federal wildlife refuge. So the mayor of King Cove and the head of the regional government, the Aleutians East Borough, proposed that the state and native governments swap 61,000 undeveloped acres for the crucial right-of-way controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The villagers hired high-powered advocates to help them, dipping into a $2.4 million budget over the past two years to spend $145,000 on lobbying in Washington and $136,000 more to fly officials there to push the issue, city records show. The borough spent an additional $72,000 during that period for lobbying in the state capital.

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