Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a 315,000-acre stretch of eelgrass and tundra pockmarked with lakes and lagoons, a site where the geese called Pacific black brants stop off to feed before they begin their journey to wintering grounds in Mexico.
But the fate of this remote wilderness area has become a critical bargaining chip in an inside-the-Beltway battle, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) threatening to block Sally Jewell’s nomination as interior secretary unless the Obama administration agrees to put a road through it.
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.”
On Feb. 11, she reiterated the threat in letters to Salazar and President Obama, saying she is “prepared to consider all actions available to me as a U.S. Senator to convince this administration that denying people of the King Cove reliable access to medical care would be a travesty.”
Refuge advocates say the federal government has already taken several steps to assist King Cove residents, providing $37.5 million in 1998 to construct a telemedicine center along with $9 million to buy a hovercraft to transport them to Cold Bay. The Aleutians East Borough operated the hovercraft between the two towns until November 2011, but borough administrator Rick Gifford said the $1 million operating budget was unaffordable.
“The weather made it unreliable,” Gifford said. “It couldn’t operate enough days.”
One of the arguments being made for the road is that air transport from King Cove has been dangerous. Eleven King Cove residents have died in plane crashes stemming from medical emergencies, 10 of them in two separate crashes in 1980 and 1981.
But others say transporting patients by road would be more perilous than not having it at all.
“Combined with darkness, avalanche conditions, and ice-glazed roads, an attempt to travel the proposed road would be foolish beyond any reason, regardless the emergency or business,” wrote the former Eastern Aleutian medical director for the U.S. Public Health Service, Peter Mjos, in May 2012. “Any attempt to maintain the road for travel in such conditions would clearly jeopardize life.”
“While we feel for the people of King Cove, the road is not the answer if they’re actually seeking faster, more effective access to medical facilities,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Wilderness Society’s Alaska regional director.
Originally, both area residents and state officials viewed the road as a way to bolster the region’s fishing industry. In 1994, when King Cove passed its first resolution calling for its construction, it did not mention safety concerns and instead called for the road to “link together two communities having one of the State’s premier fishing port/harbors (including North America’s largest salmon cannery) in King Cove with one of the State’s premier airports at Cold Bay.”
Lawmakers have proposed language that would restrict the road to emergency operations. Outsiders may question the villagers’ environmental commitment, Trumble said, but the refuge is “a part of who we are as Aleut people.”
Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said it’s unrealistic to expect federal officials will enforce such restrictions on a road she said would “go through the biological heart of the refuge . . . They’re not going to be having an armed guard at the gate.”