A road Alaska doesn’t need

A con­struc­tion pro­ject planned for a wildlife refuge should be shelved for good


The true price of Sally Jewell’s con­fir­ma­tion as the new in­te­rior sec­re­tary is about to be re­vealed. Be­fore agree­ing not to fight Jewell’s nom­i­na­tion last month, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) ex­tracted a com­mit­ment from the In­te­rior Depart­ment to de­lay a de­ci­sion on whether a road can be built to the south­west Alaska vil­lage of King Cove, pop­u­la­tion 950.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice found that the road would se­verely dam­age the Izem­bek National Wildlife Refuge, a national trea­sure that is home to a vast ar­ray of crea­tures, in­clud­ing seals, salmon, cari­bou, bears and wa­ter­fowl. The se­na­tor was buy­ing time in an ef­fort to per­suade the new sec­re­tary to go against the ser­vice’s find­ings and ap­prove the road any­way. Now the fi­nal de­ci­sion is pend­ing — and more than wildlife is at stake. It is re­ally the U.S. tax­payer who stands to lose if the road goes through.

The ad­di­tional cost to fed­eral tax­pay­ers for build­ing the road would be more than $33 mil­lion — a lot of money for one tiny vil­lage. And if it seems like you have heard this story be­fore, that’s be­cause you have.

In 1998, we were the in­te­rior sec­re­tary and di­rec­tor of the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, re­spec­tively, when the Izem­bek road pro­posal was ear­marked in an ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill headed for pas­sage in Congress. But a lengthy sci­en­tific re­view de­ter­mined that the road would dev­as­tate the Izem­bek refuge, so Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton threat­ened a veto un­less the ear­mark was re­moved.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), then chair­man of the Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, rolled out his main ar­gu­ment: The res­i­dents of King Cove needed bet­ter ac­cess to an air strip in the event of med­i­cal emer­gen­cies re­quir­ing evac­u­a­tion. In re­sponse, we sug­gested up­grad­ing the ex­ist­ing ferry ser­vice from King Cove across Cold Bay to the air strip, which would avoid the need for a road through a wildlife refuge.

Stevens re­sponded that an up­graded ferry would work, if we were pre­pared to also fund an up­grade of the ex­ist­ing marine ter­mi­nals on the bay. We agreed. The se­na­tor then de­manded an up­graded video tele­con­fer- ence link to a trauma fa­cil­ity in An­chor­age. We agreed. Then he asked for a new ocean-wor­thy hov­er­craft ca­pa­ble of cross­ing the bay in any weather. We agreed to that as well. The fi­nal bill to the U.S. tax­payer? Over $50 mil­lion; more than $52,000 per res­i­dent of King Cove.

It was a huge price to pay to ac­com­mo­date the rare med­i­cal emer­gen­cies of one small Alaska vil­lage, but ac­com­mo­date them we did. Alaska got its tax­payer-funded med­i­cal emer­gency so­lu­tion, and we helped en­sure the sur­vival of the Izem­bek Refuge. End of story. Or so we thought. Now the Alaska del­e­ga­tion is back, once again de­mand­ing a road through the refuge, as if the 1998 deal had never hap­pened. That hov­er­craft pur­chased with tax­payer dollars? De­spite a 100 per­cent suc­cess rate in car­ry­ing out more than 30 med­i­cal evac­u­a­tions, lo­cal of­fi­cials sus­pended ser­vice in 2010, say­ing the hov­er­craft was un­re­li­able and too ex­pen­sive to op­er­ate. But that hasn’t stopped them from us­ing it to trans­port sea­sonal seafood work­ers from a nearby can­nery.

More­over, as Pete Mjos, the for­mer med­i­cal di­rec­tor for the area, re­cently said, the pro­posed road would be im­pass­able and even life-threat­en­ing dur­ing the re­gion’s typ­i­cal win­ter storms. Even in the best weather con­di­tions, it would still be a two-hour trip. The hov­er­craft? Thirty min­utes each way across the bay. And all with­out slic­ing through a pris­tine wilder­ness area with 21 miles of road, eight bridges, 19 cul­verts and 254 stream cross­ings.

Congress is on record call­ing for an end to ear­marks for pork-barrel projects. And ev­ery day we hear more calls for spend­ing cuts and belt-tight­en­ing. U.S. tax­pay­ers have al­ready chipped in more than enough for this pro­ject. Ask­ing them to pay tens of mil­lions on top of the more than $50 mil­lion they have al­ready spent is ask­ing too much. It’s time the Izem­bek road pro­ject was killed for good. Bruce Bab­bitt was in­te­rior sec­re­tary un­der Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. Jamie Rap­pa­port Clark is pres­i­dent of De­fend­ers of Wildlife and was di­rec­tor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.


Geese swim and feed in a la­goon in Alaska’s Izem­bek National Wildlife Refuge.

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