Land swap allows road to reach isolated community
Obama fought path through protected area
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.