Rescue road in Alaska

Former senator Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful congressmen of his generation, was killed Aug. 9 in an airplane crash in a remote part of southwest Alaska.
By Frank H. Murkowski, Ted Stevens and Don Young
Tuesday, June 30, 1998; 12:00 AM

Eleven people already have died because of small-plane crashes during medical evacuations in the rural Alaska community of King Cove. Numerous others have been injured seriously in other plane crashes. Even more have suffered serious, life-long health problems because they couldn't get immediate emergency medical care.

Throughout the United States, most people are minutes away from good hospitals and surgeons. In Alaska's remote Aleutian Chain, it's not so easy. With what the National Weather Service calls the worst weather conditions in the nation, 80-mile-per-hour winds and lengthy storms often make travel dangerous. Surrounded by mountains, the dirt landing strip in King Cove allows little margin for error. If you have a heart attack or other medical emergency, you either take your chances trying to fly to Cold Bay's modern airport in order to get to Anchorage, or you wait out the weather and suffer the consequences.

We have introduced legislation in both House and Senate to authorize a right-of-way for a 27-mile road from King Cove to Cold Bay. Just 10 miles of this road would be in the massive 300,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. And only seven miles would be in the Wilderness area. We have not asked for any federal funds. The Senate interior Appropriations subcommittee agreed to language that would move the boundary of the wilderness area to allow 85 acres to be used for a road.

In exchange, the King Cove Native Corporation has agreed to give 664 acres of private lands adjacent to the refuge to be added as wilderness, leaving a net increase of 579 acres of wilderness -- including two areas of prime waterfowl habitat at the end of the lagoon. This bill specifies the road be one lane and unpaved. It also gives the secretary of the interior the power to regulate non-emergency traffic on the road during high bird migratory periods.

Theodore Roosevelt IV's recent op-ed in The Post {"Bulldozing Through Our Wilderness," June 16} decries the road as a "dangerous precedent."

But as Marvin Hoff told the House Resources Committee during a hearing last September: "If we had such a road, my wife, Kathy, would be alive today." Marvin's wife was one of those killed during an emergency medical transport out of King Cove.

"We do not want anyone else to be killed trying to get from King Cove to Cold Bay, or to continue increasing the risks of medical complications of injured or sick people when they can't get out of King Cove for several days at a time," said Aleut leader Della Trumble.

Safety was not an issue when the refuge and wilderness were created in 1980, but the 11 deaths since have made it the primary issue. It isn't the Aleuts' fault that Congress completely isolated them from the rest of the world by creating a huge refuge surrounding their community.

Environmental extremists and some political appointees in the Clinton administration are now opposing the project under the guise of environmental concerns. In his op-ed article, Roosevelt claims the King Cove project threatens the recently approved National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. He's wrong. We wrote the new refuge act. It is not designed to place the federal government's priority on stopping life-and-death projects such as the King Cove road.

Roosevelt claims the King Cove road will lead to "hotels, gas stations, restaurants and marinas." In fact, King Cove is not Las Vegas or Ocean City. Its population is 700. It is not and never will be a resort town; it's too remote and the weather is too severe.

Roosevelt argues that the solution is to create a federal "endowment" for "improved air service, ferry and marine links, as well as telemedicine." This is ridiculous. If the weather is so severe that a small plane can't take off, then the waters in the Bering Sea are going to be even worse.

Telemedicine is also a worthless option. Who wants to talk to a doctor in Anchorage to confirm that he's having a heart attack or bleeding to death when there's no medical facility to treat him? There are only satellite telephones in King Cove, and the weather interferes with those satellites as well.

The Clinton administration publicly claims the 10 miles of road in the Izembek Refuge would have an "adverse impact" and that it would set a dangerous precedent.

But there's a dirty little secret that the administration and environmental organizations don't like to talk about. Just last month, $100 million was included in the ISTEA bill for the reconstruction and paving of roads in national wildlife refuges. This new money was requested by the Interior Department in order to "provide the public with a safe and enjoyable visit and enhance visitor experiences." The president just signed this legislation into law.

The Interior Department justifies spending this $100 million because "refuge roads are used more intensively by the public than all National Forest roads and Department of Defense roads combined" and because "deteriorating road conditions in Wildlife Refuges could compromise visitor safety" for the 30 million refuge visitors each year.

Some 4,250 miles of roads and 420 bridges already exist in refuges -- including 40 miles in the Izembek Refuge and wilderness area for hikers and bird watchers.

So, according to the Interior Department, it's okay to spend $100 million to build and pave roads for vehicles, berry pickers and hikers, but when a small Aleut community needs a 10-mile, single-lane, gravel road for medical emergencies, it would result in "adverse impacts" on the refuge.

Frank H. Murkowski and Ted Stevens are Republican senators from Alaska. Don Young is the Republican representative from Alaska.

© 1998 The Washington Post Company