King Cove road is poised for approval
January 12th 1:40 pm | Carey Restino
After decades of debate, King Cove may be well on its way to finally getting approval for a long-sought-after road to Cold Bay.
Community officials confirmed this week that the Interior Department had finalized, but not yet signed, a land swap deal that would allow the construction of the road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The land swap was opposed by the previous administration, despite pleas from the community that the road was critical to ensure access to the nearest airport, especially in medical emergencies.
Local officials in King Cove said the news is encouraging after years of struggle. The road, championed by Alaska's federal lawmakers for many years, is needed primarily to ensure the health and safety of the community's 925 residents, the community says. Many residents in the past have told of the anxiety of watching loved ones wait for medical evacuation when critically ill. With frequently dangerous weather conditions, flying to and from the community in a medical emergency is often impossible. But Cold Bay, 30 miles away, has a much larger, and safer, airport and could provide more dependable access to medical flights, they say.
"This is and always has been about health, safety and quality of life for the residents of King Cove," said Laura Tanis, communications director for the Aleutians East Borough, in an email, adding that since the 2013 denial of the land exchange by the Obama administration, 69 medevacs have been preformed. Of those, 17 were conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and some patients had to wait as long as 40 hours for weather to improve enough for transport to larger hospitals.
But opponents, which included prior Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, say the ecological impact of the road through a protected wildlife refuge would be detrimental to area's wildlife, especially migratory birds, which nest and feed there. The refuge was established by President Dwight Eisenhower, and most of the 315,000 acres were designated wilderness in 1980, a designation that prohibits motorized vehicle access.
Under the deal, reportedly being signed later this month, the city of King Cove would swap between 250 and 500 acres of tribal land for an approximate 200-acre strip along the refuge's southern boundary on Cold Bay with land within the refuge, the Post reported. The exact amount of land hasn't been determined yet, Tanis said, but the goal is to have an equal-value exchange, she said.
The full length of the road would be 30 miles long, of which 19 miles already exist. Only an estimated 11 miles of the new road, however, are expected to go through the refuge. Officials have proposed a one-lane gravel road, and say that contrary to claims by critics, hauling fish or other commercial purposes would not be allowed.
But environmental organizations, such as the National Audubon Society, say the swap is a bad deal.
"The war on wildlife just continues to spread," said David Yarnold, CEO of the organization. "Izembek and Alaska's Arctic Refuge are both under attack by the administration and Congress and the justifications are simply not true."
They say the ramifications for birds and other wildlife, not just in Izembek refuge, but other wildlife refuges across the country, are devastating.
But people who live in King Cove say environmental groups, and former officials, including Jewell, have spread misinformation about the damage the road could cause.
"It's very disheartening that they do this," said Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the King Cove Corporation. "They are giving the public lies and they are not willing to work with us or even meet us half way."
Trumble said the claim that the road would do irreparable harm to the refuge is inaccurate. Sport hunters travel through the area already and haven't damaged it, she said.
"We should all be able to use these lands," she said.
If the deal is signed as expected, the next step will be for King Cove and the state to study the best route for the road. Then, officials will have to find funding for the road, which has been estimated to cost some $22 million, most of which is expected to come from the state.
"We've been fighting to have access for over 35 years," she said. "I think the community and people are thankful and hopeful that we'll be able to at least move forward to the next step. We know it will continue to be an uphill battle."