Backed by a big offering of state lands, the community of King Cove has returned to Congress pressing for a road through a national wildlife refuge wilderness to Cold Bay's all-weather jetport.
King Cove was turned down a decade ago in its pursuit of a road. But the Aleut community has found more bipartisan support in Congress this year with a proposal that includes new environmental compromises and a sweetened offer of 61,000 acres that would be added to the federal refuge -- including 43,000 coming from a supportive state administration.
In return, the state would get a narrow 7-mile band of land through sensitive wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on which to build a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay. The refuge is located 600 miles southwest of Anchorage, near the end of the Alaska Peninsula.
Environmental groups oppose the road and are mounting a last-ditch stand in Congress, pegged in part to the current presidential campaign. They are calling attention to Gov. Sarah Palin's support for the land deal and calling it a "Road to Nowhere."
Environmentalists say Congress should stick with the compromise struck in 1998, which provided King Cove with a costly hovercraft to reach Cold Bay.
The new land-trade proposal has passed through key committees in both the House and Senate, winning support from Democrats as well as Republicans this time around. The latest approval came Sept. 11 from the Senate Energy Committee.
But time is short. Congress is considering a pre-election adjournment in another week or two, with some talk of a short lame-duck session after Election Day.
The King Cove measure would likely be included in a big package of public lands bills in the Senate requiring swift movement and unanimous consent to pass, said a key Senate aide.
"The calendar is not an ally in this instance," said Senate Energy Committee spokesman Bill Wicker. "They all move together or they all sink together."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the proposed road "narrow and unobtrusive" and said the land trade deal is "more than fair." A similar measure pushed by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is pending in the House.
Officials in King Cove, which has 800 residents, say a road would allow people who need emergency care to reach the airport and safety during storms. They cite the deaths of 11 people in foul-weather crashes at King Cove in the early 1980s.
Environmentalists have long opposed a road through the isthmus of land near Cold Bay, saying the wetlands provide some of the world's most important habitat for migratory waterfowl. The area's lagoons and eelgrass beds were among the first to be protected for wildlife in Alaska. Environmentalists also worry about the precedent of allowing roads through designated wilderness in a refuge.
The issue last came to a head in 1998, when President Bill Clinton threatened to veto a road measure approved by a Republican-led Senate. The Clinton administration cut a deal with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, providing $37.5 million in federal funds for a hovercraft, improvements to the King Cove clinic and an access road to the water.
Local officials said at the time they weren't part of the take-it-or-leave-it deal.
The hovercraft operation started a year ago and required a $1 million subsidy by the Aleutians East Borough. That can't be sustained, King Cove leaders say.
"When it can operate, it's great," said King Cove Corporation president Della Trumble. ""But unfortunately, the whole reason for access is because of the weather and you can't travel in a hovercraft in bad weather."
The hovercraft did come through when medical evacuations were necessary in its first year, officials say.
The new proposal started coming together when former Gov. Frank Murkowski suggested a big land trade that would include state land, said King Cove city manager Gary Hennigh. Palin agreed to the deal soon after her election, he said.
Of the 61,000 acres going to the federal government, more than two-thirds would come from the state. Much of it would become wilderness. In return, the state would get a road-building corridor totaling 206 acres. The state would also receive 1,600-acre Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak, where a Coast Guard facility is being decommissioned.
In addition to giving up land, local officials agreed to have an environmental impact statement written before the road could be built. The road -- to be built with future state and federal appropriations -- would be guarded by a cable barrier on either side to prevent travelers from detouring into the sensitive wetlands.
"That's the cost of us having access," Trimble said.
The Senate compromise also would prevent the large King Cove fish processing plant owned by Peter Pan from using the road to reach the Cold Bay airport. Critics had charged the road was really being pushed to serve the processing company.
Environmentalists say a road would fragment wetlands habitat and threaten birds with disturbance and pollution. A road will be hard to maintain during winter storms and offers no guarantees of access to Cold Bay, they say. They prefer a federal subsidy for the hovercraft.
Environmental groups predict the road would cost another $16 million to $30 million to complete. King Cove officials put the cost at $12 million to $14 million.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association has attacked the new legislation in a report, "Road to Nowhere." The New York Times picked up that theme last week, deriding the project as more Alaska pork in an editorial titled "First a Bridge, Now a Road."
It's unclear which end of the road would be considered the "nowhere" end, but local people say they find the label insulting.
"They're basically saying these people mean nothing," said Laura Tanis, an Aleutians East Borough spokeswoman. "They've been here for 4,000 years."
Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 1-907-235-4244.