Residents, Congressional Delegation Outraged by Izembek Road Decision
Tuesday, February 05 2013
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came out against a controversial proposed road through the Izembek National Wildlife refuge Tuesday. Residents of King Cove are disappointed, but say they’re not giving up on the project.
Locals have been lobbying for a road to connect King Cove and and the all-weather airport at Cold Bay for decades. They say it would save lives by making medevacs safer. But environmentalist activists have consistently opposed the project, contending it would devastate critical habitat for migratory birds.
In a more than two thousand page environmental impact statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service came down on the side of the activists. Agency spokesperson Bruce Woods says given the uniqueness of the habitat, a proposal to exchange state and tribal lands for the roadway simply didn’t pass muster.
"We felt that taking this step of bisecting the wilderness with this road was irrevocable.”
Woods says the decision takes into account not only the direct impact on species, but also the consequences of increased accessibility to Refuge lands.
“It was the impacts to the somewhat more ephemeral ‘wilderness character’ of the lands, by having the road through it, which like I said, once it’s done, is done.”
Even though it didn't come as a surprise, residents weren't happy about the decision. King Cove Corporation administrator Della Trumble says she's outraged.
“This is a slap in the face. It’s a bird over human life," she says.
As things stand, medevacs from King Cove are by air when weather conditions permit, and by private vessel or Coast Guard helicopter when planes can’t land. There used to be hovercraft service between King Cove and Cold Bay, but the Aleutians East Borough suspended it in 2010, citing high cost and unreliability. In its decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service supports a different proposal by the borough -- to operate a landing craft between the communities. But Trumble says that simply won’t work because of the area’s bad weather.
“The reliability of anything else besides a road is just not there.”
King Cove mayor Henry Mack agrees. He says it feels like the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t pay attention to the community’s concerns. Although the final decision on the road rests with the Secretary of the Interior, Mack is pretty sure the community has lost this round. But he sees it as just one more chapter in the decades-long saga, and he plans to keep fighting.
“We have not given up -- we have a strong group, the King Cove group we call it, of gentlemen and ladies who work very hard. We have support of Senator Murkowski and Begich and Representative Don Young. Very strong folks who fight for this here. So we’re still in it yet. We’ll just see where it goes here."
Alaska’s Congressional delegation came out unanimously against the Fish and Wildlife Service today. Representative Don Young says he plans to introduce legislation to force the federal government to exchange lands so that a road can be built.
"You know, people’s lives are important. The idea that now they say they’re looking at an aluminium landing craft. Well I tell you what, a flat bottomed landing craft going across that water mass in high storms is just as dangerous as going across with an airplane. So it’s not a good decision.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski is still holding out hope that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar will override the Fish and Wildlife Service. Ultimately, it’s up to Salazar to make a determination about whether the road is in the public interest.
"I am hopeful that given sufficient pressure, he will look at this, weigh the considerations, and he will equally value the lives and safety of the people of King Cove at the same time that he's looking to protection of a refuge."
A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior refused to comment on a timeline for that decision, or on whether Secretary Salazar will make it before leaving office later this spring.
APRN's Peter Granitz contributed reporting to this story.