Road Through Alaskan Refuge Wins Senate Backing

King Cove is a fishing village that abuts the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
King Cove is a fishing village that abuts the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. (By Matthew Mosk -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

A controversial road project through a prized wildlife refuge in Alaska, tucked into a sweeping bipartisan lands package, appears poised to make it into law.

With Senate passage yesterday of legislation to protect more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, the proposal to build a road traversing Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a step closer to fruition after a decade-long battle. The 800 residents of King Cove -- a fishing village that abuts the refuge -- argue they need a one-lane road to connect them to the nearest all-weather airport, in Cold Bay.

Environmentalists objected that the project would undermine Izembek's pristine landscape and that taxpayers have already paid to construct a terminal and supply the hovercraft that ferries residents across the bay.

"It is, in our view, a world-class boondoggle," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, noting that the refuge supports migratory birds such as the Pacific black brant as well as caribou and the Alaskan brown bear. "Izembek is a sacrificial lamb in the public lands bill."

A broad coalition of environmental, outdoor recreation and business organizations, along with local, state and federal officials, has been pushing for years to expand wilderness areas in the United States. These groups hailed the passage of the massive package, now headed for the House, which would provide the highest level of federal protection to areas such as Oregon's Mount Hood and part of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest, along with other sites in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia.

"Particularly in these uncertain times, it's good for Americans to know they have some certainty when it comes to public lands protection, and this package definitely provides it," said Mike Matz, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for America's Wilderness. He added that he and others "would prefer not to see" the Izembek road project in the bill, "but that's the art of legislating. It's about compromise."

Although the Senate bill would put some checks on the Alaska road project -- the Interior Department would have to issue an environmental impact statement on the project and the Interior secretary could block it -- Alaskans hailed the Senate vote.

"This legislation is the key that will provide an improved quality of life for the mostly Aleut [Alaska native] people of King Cove," Mayor Stanley Mack of Aleutians East Borough said in a statement. "They deserve to have safe, affordable, dependable surface transportation."

Hirsche said taxpayers have spent $41 million addressing the medical and transport needs of King Cove residents, including building a medical center and buying the new hovercraft to transport them to Cold Bay. The hovercraft, which has conducted 32 successful medical evacuations, can transport 56 passengers across the bay in 20 minutes in 10-foot waves.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company