Land swap al­lows road to reach iso­lated com­mu­nity

Obama fought path through pro­tected area

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Congress ap­pears to have worked out a so­lu­tion to a long-run­ning fight be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Alaska, propos­ing a land swap that would give the fed­eral gov­ern­ment tens of thou­sands of acres of land while the state would fi­nally gain con­trol over a small strip of en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive wilder­ness through which Alaska wants to build a road.

The state says the 11-mile, one-lane gravel road is needed to save lives in King Cove, a com­mu­nity of fewer than 1,000 peo­ple that oth­er­wise is wa­ter­locked and where emer­gency ser­vices — such as air­lifts to the hospi­tal — are at the mercy of the weather.

But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had re­sisted al­low­ing a road to be built, cit­ing po­ten­tial da­m­age to the Izem­bek Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, and agree­ing with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists that the road could do ir­repara­ble harm to mi­gra­tory bird habi­tats.

With the gov­ern­ment now un­der GOP con­trol, how­ever, Alaska is hav­ing bet­ter luck, with the land-swap com­pro­mise gain­ing steam, clear­ing a key House com­mit­tee Tues­day.

The House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee green­lighted a bill au­tho­riz­ing the mas­sive land swap, which would trans­fer more than 43,000 acres of Alaskan land to the De­part­ment of the In­te­rior in ex­change for about 200 acres of land in the Izem­bek in or­der to build the road. The Izem­bek refuge to­tals about 315,000 acres.

The bill passed by a vote of 23 to 14 and now heads to the full House, where it’s ex­pected to pass.

The road, supporters say, is quite lit­er­ally a mat­ter of life and death for the peo­ple of King Cove.

“Nine­teen peo­ple have died be­cause they didn’t have this road,” said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Repub­li­can and chief spon­sor of the mea­sure.

The King Cove road has been a top pri­or­ity for Mr. Young, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and state of­fi­cials for decades. The peo­ple of King Cove, they say, live in con­stant dan­ger, of­ten hav­ing to wait many hours to be flown via Mede­vac from their iso­lated com­mu­nity.

Still, op­po­nents say the leg­is­la­tion is mis­guided and that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ini­tial de­ter­mi­na­tions — that the risk to the en­vi­ron­ment out­weighed the need for the road, and that there were other al­ter­na­tives to con­struc­tion through the Izem­bek — were cor­rect.

“The bill ig­nores all of that work [done by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion] and de­clares the project in the public in­ter­est,” said Rep. Raul M. Gri­jalva, Ari­zona Democrat. “This could be the first time Congress au­tho­rized con­struc­tion of a road through the mid­dle of a des­ig­nated wilder­ness.”

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke has said he’ll re­visit the King Cove is­sue in the com­ing months, and it’s ex­pected that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ul­ti­mately will be will­ing to sign off on the project.

Ms. Murkowski and other of­fi­cials have rou­tinely raised the is­sue with the ad­min­is­tra­tion since President Trump took of­fice in Jan­uary.

But con­gres­sional ap­proval will by no means be the end of the bat­tle. Mr. Gri­jalva on Tues­day pro­posed an amend­ment that would have with­drawn the land swap if the road wasn’t com­pleted within seven years. Repub­li­cans shot down that amend­ment, sug­gest­ing that lit­i­ga­tion from en­vi­ron­men­tal groups eas­ily could de­lay the process for that long.

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