Alaska road shelved un­der Obama gets another look

Iso­lated town seeks link

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Pres­i­dent Trump’s In­te­rior Depart­ment plans a fresh look at shelved plans to build a sin­gle-lane gravel road to King Cove, Alaska, breath­ing new life into a decades-long de­bate that has pit­ted the iso­lated com­mu­nity seek­ing a link to the out­side world against en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who say the project would wreak havoc on a fed­eral wildlife refuge.

The pro­posed road, which would con­nect King Cove to an air­port in nearby Cold Bay, was re­jected in 2013 by Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Sally Jewell. She said con­cerns about dam­age to the Izem­bek Na­tional Wildlife Refuge — through which the road would run — out­weighed ar­gu­ments in fa­vor of the project and that al­ter­na­tives to the road could be found.

Crit­ics of Ms. Jewell’s de­ci­sion, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Repub­li­can who has cham­pi­oned the road for years, ar­gue that it is a mat­ter

of life and death for the fewer than 1,000 res­i­dents of King Cove. With no ac­cess to the com­mu­nity by road, res­i­dents must be flown via mede­vac in the event of a med­i­cal emer­gency.

Alaskan of­fi­cials say at least 19 peo­ple have died over the past three decades ei­ther wait­ing in King Cove for med­i­cal at­ten­tion or in mede­vac crashes as they at­tempted to reach the Cold Bay air­port. A sim­ple road, Ms. Murkowski and oth­ers ar­gue, would save lives.

Rep. Don Young, a Repub­li­can and Alaska’s lone rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the House, also has in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to clear the way for the road to be built. He was sharply crit­i­cal of the road’s op­po­nents at a House Nat­u­ral Re­sources sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing this month.

“The idea that the area is go­ing to be dis­turbed is non­sense,” Mr. Young said. “It’s pure B.S. that comes out of these in­ter­est groups — these en­vi­ron­men­tal groups.”

But op­po­nents of the project say that in ad­di­tion to the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age a road could cause, al­ter­na­tives such as boats are more af­ford­able and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.

Although the de­bate has been rag­ing for decades, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke will re­visit the project. Mr. Trump has of­ten spo­ken of the bur­den fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal rules and reg­u­la­tions have placed on the states and on the econ­omy, rais­ing hopes that the road­block put up un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion may be re­moved.

Mr. Zinke “places pri­or­ity in con­sid­er­ing state and lo­cal in­put in de­ci­sions be­fore the depart­ment. Given the sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est of the King Cove com­mu­nity, the depart­ment is re­view­ing the is­sues there and de­ter­min­ing its best abil­ity to ad­dress them,” said Me­gan Bloom­gren, a spokes­woman for the depart­ment.

Ms. Jewell’s 2013 de­ci­sion also was up­held by a fed­eral judge, who in Septem­ber 2015 shot down King Cove res­i­dents’ claim that she vi­o­lated proper reg­u­la­tory pro­ce­dures in reach­ing her con­clu­sion. That court case tem­po­rar­ily closed the is­sue from a po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive.

New pres­i­dent, new per­spec­tive

But with a new ad­min­is­tra­tion in place, Ms. Murkowski is re­dou­bling her ef­forts. She has pro­posed a mas­sive land swap that she says should mit­i­gate any en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns associated with build­ing the road. Her leg­is­la­tion would turn over roughly 43,000 acres of state land to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in ex­change for a 400-acre cor­ri­dor through the Izem­bek refuge needed to con­struct the road. That cor­ri­dor would im­pose on only about 0.06 per­cent of the Izem­bek refuge.

King Cove has a small airstrip, but Ms. Murkowski and oth­ers say it is rou­tinely closed be­cause of poor weather.

The Cold Bay air­port, they say, was de­signed as an all-weather fa­cil­ity and is rarely closed, mak­ing it a far bet­ter op­tion for the sick or in­jured in King Cove.

In ad­di­tion to the re­ported deaths over the years, Ms. Murkowski points to a case last year of an el­derly woman with a hip frac­ture who had to wait 40 hours be­fore a heli­copter could trans­port her to a hospi­tal in An­chor­age.

Heavy fog, Ms. Murkowski said, tem­po­rar­ily pre­vented a mede­vac flight out of King Cove.

“I have spo­ken to Pres­i­dent Trump and Sec­re­tary Zinke about the Aleut peo­ple who live in this re­gion, how deeply they care for their lands and how they are be­ing forced to live in fear that they will not be able to re­ceive proper care in the event of a med­i­cal emer­gency,” the sen­a­tor said. “I am look­ing at all avail­able op­tions to fi­nally au­tho­rize a short, one-lane gravel road as ex­pe­di­tiously as pos­si­ble and have re­newed hope as I work with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

But crit­ics still say a road from King Cove to Cold Bay is the wrong course. They point to re­peated In­te­rior Depart­ment stud­ies that con­clude that the project should not move for­ward.

“The facts have not changed since Sec­re­tary Jewell ruled against the road project,” said Ni­cole Whit­ting­ton-Evans, Alaska Re­gional Di­rec­tor for The Wilder­ness So­ci­ety.

“It’s im­por­tant to note that the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior has re­peat­edly stud­ied a pro­posed land swap and road through Izem­bek Na­tional Wildlife Refuge and con­sis­tently re­jected the project be­cause of its neg­a­tive ef­fects on the eco­log­i­cal, sub­sis­tence and wilder­ness val­ues of the refuge,” she said.

The Army Corps of En­gi­neers in 2015 re­leased a de­tailed re­port that ex­am­ined al­ter­na­tives to a road from King Cove to Cold Bay. The study did not make an of­fi­cial rec­om­men­da­tion but did set out a va­ri­ety of pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing the con­struc­tion of a new air­port on King Cove, estab­lish­ing marine modes of trans­porta­tion and set­ting up a more re­li­able heli­port.

Each op­tion, while ex­pen­sive and com­ing with its own set of pros and cons, seemed at least some­what vi­able, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

For that rea­son, along with the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age a road could cause, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists con­tend that Ms. Murkowski and her al­lies should give up on the project.

“This land swap and road build­ing plan have been stud­ied re­peat­edly, and re­jected re­peat­edly. It’s past time for Alaska’s con­gres­sional lead­ers to stop wast­ing time on this failed road project and in­stead fo­cus on the other avail­able so­lu­tions that can meet the needs of lo­cal res­i­dents while keep­ing Izem­bek Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in­tact,” said Alli Har­vey, Alaska rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild Amer­ica cam­paign.


En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists con­cerned about the Izem­bek Na­tional Wildlife Refuge say boats would be less de­struc­tive than a road to con­nect King Cove to Cold Bay. They also dis­miss an In­te­rior Depart­ment pro­posal for a wilder­ness land swap.

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