WASHINGTON -- The community of King Cove had a small victory Wednesday in its campaign to get a road to an airport built across a wilderness area, but the triumph might be short-lived.
Although the House of Natural Resources Committee voted for a land swap that would lead to a road from King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay, the bill is unlikely to move any further.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., did not vote for the bill, although he said he did allow it to be heard as a favor to Rep. Don Young, the top Republican on the committee. Without Rahall's support, Young will have a difficult time persuading the Democratic leadership to bring the bill to the House floor.
The swap would give the state a seven-mile easement through a wildlife refuge to complete a 25-mile gravel road that would connect King Cove with Cold Bay. In exchange, the state would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government. Much of that land would be added to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and part would be designated as wilderness.
The community wants the road as an option to the hovercraft used now to travel across the bay to get to the airport -- home to the third-longest runway in the state and open in nearly all weather conditions.
Congress in 1998 approved spending more then $37 million to provide the hovercraft, docks and improvements to the King Cove airstrip. Another $2.4 million went toward telemedicine at the town's health clinic. But the town has continued to press for a road.
Conservationists oppose the road, and say that traffic will disrupt migratory birds in the refuge as well as other wildlife that pass along the narrow isthmus.
Rahall said his concerns covered a "slew of issues," including reservations about building a road through a pristine area. He also said that he was worried that a road in the Izembek refuge could open the door to proposals for roads in other wilderness areas where there are limits on motorized vehicle access.
Wednesday, after the bill passed on a voice vote, Rahall told teens attending the hearing from King Cove that "this victory's for the students from Alaska" but offered no hope that it would advance beyond the committee hearing.
And even Young, the bill's main sponsor, said he was "not optimistic about the time frame." But it was important that it was heard, Young said.
"At least now we've made a step forward," he said.
Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad or call her in Washington, D.C., at 202-383-6104.