A federal agency will begin an environmental review of a proposed road through an Alaska wildlife refuge that provides sanctuary to thousands of migratory birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans "scoping" meetings in Alaska and Washington, D.C., this month to collect testimony on issues to consider related to a land exchange and possible road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The road proposal pits rural Alaskans, who want the road for safety reasons, against environmental groups, which call the road unnecessary.
The refuge is on the Alaska Peninsula.
It is an internationally important wetlands for migratory birds, said John Schoen of Audubon Alaska.
The refuge surrounds and protects the watershed of several large lagoons, including the 30-mile by 5-mile Izembek Lagoon, which provides food and shelter for a wide variety of migrant birds. According to the refuge Web site, about 130,000 Pacific black brant, 62,000 emperor geese, 50,000 Taverner's Canada geese, 300,000 ducks, and 80,000 shorebirds stop in the Izembek area during migration. Threatened Steller's eiders winter in the area.
A road for decades has been a priority for the community of King Cove, population 750, which wants land access to an all-weather jet port at Cold Bay.
Congress in 1998 addressed the community's access with a $37.5 million appropriation that paid for a $9 million hovercraft to ferry villagers between the two communities.
"We're finding that it doesn't operate as well as we had hoped in windy conditions," said Sharon Boyette, administrator for the Aleutians East Borough. Foul weather can stop both aircraft and the hovercraft, she said.
Della Trumble, a King Cove Corp. spokeswoman, said Monday winds were blowing from the northwest at 40 mph and a 100-foot vessel just back from Cold Bay was covered with ice. "Our weather is extreme, and it gets very cold," she said.
The land exchange proposes removing 206 acres from the refuge for a road corridor and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak.
In return, the federal government would receive about 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation set up by federal law in Alaska's Native land claims settlement.
A road would be restricted and could not be used for commercial activity, Boyette said.
Trumble said the land exchange is not a small gesture.
"It's unbelievable what's on the table, including what the state is giving up," she said.
For environmental groups, it's not how much land that's critical but where it's located.
A road would split a narrow isthmus in one of the most sensitive areas in the refuge, according to The Wilderness Society, causing irreparable harm and adding stress to an ecosystem already feeling effects of climate change. Environmentalists also say the road would set a bad precedent for a refuge.
Environmental groups don't live in the affected communities, Trumble said.
"We're Aleut people. We've lived and subsisted off these lands for thousands of years. We don't do anything that won't give us a return for renewable resources."
The first scoping meeting will be Thursday night in Anchorage. A second is planned for March 11 in Washington, D.C. Meetings also are scheduled for King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, Sand Point and Nelson Lagoon in April.