King Cove, Alaska.
King Cove, Alaska. | Courtesy the Aleutians East Borough

Murkowski, locals vow to keep fighting for road through federal wildlife refuge

Denial of land for a federal highway project in Alaska was a “heartless decision” that rejected “access to lifesaving emergency medical care” for the roughly 1,000 residents of an Alaskan fishing village, according to statements made April 14 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

But opponents, who include former Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Bruce Babbitt, claim the project has less to do with medical access than it does with increasing shipping options for a local fish cannery.

The federal government would pay the vast majority of the $21.7 million the DOI estimated the road would cost to construct. The DOI said that Alaska would need to spend roughly $1.5 million to maintain the road. Critics argue the final price tag would be much higher.

The proposed highway was the sole topic of an April 14 Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. The one-lane road would run for 26 miles and connect King Cove - which is only accessible by air or boat - to  Alaska’s second longest runway at the airport at Cold Bay. Eleven of the miles  would have to go through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

 A 2009 bill called on the DOI to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) for handing over roughly 200 acres of the refuge for the project. In return, roughly 60,000 acres of Native American and Alaska-owned land would be converted to federal lands.

The EIS was completed in early 2013, with authors recommending against completing the land swap. DOI Secretary Sally Jewell elected to follow the recommendation, in a statement issued in December of that year, effectively killing the project.

Debra Corbett, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife researcher who worked on the EIS for the King Cove project, told AMI Newswire that early drafts of the project included discussion about the road’s importance in providing emergency medical service. However, when researchers requested numbers on medevacs, including lives lost or put in jeopardy as a result of risky flights, no one could provide the numbers, she said.

“None of the numbers added up,” Corbett said. “None of the information was there, and they quit talking about health and safety.”

The exclusion ultimately strengthened the DOI position, Corbett said, which was that there would be significant impact to the environment and that putting a road through one of the nation’s oldest wilderness refuges would set a bad precedent. She said roads built during World War II through the refuge are largely overgrown, and none of them cut completely through, as the proposed road would.

In her testimony before the Senate committee, Della Trumble, a spokeswoman for King Cove (Native) Corp., said  42 medevacs had occurred since the DOI rejected the land swap, 16 of which were conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Murkowski estimated each Coast Guard medevac cost about $250,000.

Residents of King Cove filed a lawsuit in attempt to override the denial by Jewell in 2013. A federal court ruled last September that Jewell had followed the law in denying the request. In his dismissal, however, U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland left open the possibility that Congress could still vote to push the project through by circumventing DOI review.

“Perhaps Congress will now think better of its decision to encumber the King Cove Road project with a [National Environmental Policy Act] requirement,” he wrote.

The 2009 bill was the second time that Congress attempted to authorize a road project connecting King Cove and Cold Bay. During the Clinton administration, a similar attempt received a threat of veto from the president. A compromise bill committed $37.5 million to King Cove, which, in addition to building a road out of the village and to an improved boat dock, also upgraded the King Cove airport and the local clinic. That latter part, Corbett argues, already puts the village in a better position than most such villages in Alaska.

“There are 250 villages in Alaska, probably 80 percent of those with no road access to anything,” Corbett said. “Nobody is talking about or concerned with those people’s access to health care.”

At the latest hearing, Murkowski said that, although the clinic does a “really good job,” it is unable, for example, to handle any serious trauma or have an anesthesiologist on staff. To receive those services, patients have to be flown to Anchorage, 625 miles away, she said.

Corbett said that in previous attempts to authorize the project, proponents openly sought to use the road to provide access for the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery to ship its products using the Cold Bay Airport. In the latest request, she said, no mention was made of the company. Peter Pan manager Dale Schwarzmiller, in a letter sent March 2014  to the DOI, pointed out that rules in the legislation limit the road's use to "noncommercial activity."

According to Peter Pan's website, its King Cove location employs  500 people at its winter and summer peaks, and is the largest salmon cannery in the state.

In a 2014 op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, Babbit, who served as DOI secretary under President Bill Clinton, said the estimated cost for the road in the mid-1990s was more than $75 million - much higher than the current $21.7 million cost estimate.

In a statement provided to AMI Newswire, DOI spokesperson Amanda DeGroff said the department was exploring alternatives to the road project, including an “ice-capable marine vessel,” helicopters and airport upgrades.

In her opening statement at Thursday’s meeting, Murkowski said none of these options was sufficient. “The answer is not to build a longer runway in King Cove. You're still faced with the weather around you and the geography around you."

Trumble, from the King Cove (Native) Corp,  also criticized the DOI’s pledge to explore alternatives, saying in a March 29 statement that the studies have already been done. “All of these alternatives were examined and dismissed in past environmental impact statements under NEPA. This was a complete waste of time and money.”

Murkowski testified that bad weather closes off the King Cove airport for up to 100 days of the year. In the 2013 EIS, researchers argued that weather could also close the proposed gravel road.

“A new road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay does not guarantee that travel between these locations would not be restricted occasionally due to weather conditions, such as heavy snowfall during winter months,” the EIS authors wrote.

Murkowski, however, promises to continue the fight. “I am not going to sit back and hope that we do not have any emergencies in bad weather, because hope is not a policy,” she said. “I am going to make sure that the people of King Cove are heard.”

For those such as  Corbett, the retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife researcher, the battle is nothing new in the ongoing balance of environmental protection versus development. “The state of Alaska wants roads everywhere. If they can get the Feds to pay for it, that’s all for the better.”