The land swap is a sweetener. The restrictions are a safeguard. But the most compelling reason to build a single-lane, gravel road from King Cove to Cold Bay is that it will save lives -- and still maintain the jewel of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
This is a case where we can have our road and our refuge.
The King Cove Village Corporation and the state of Alaska have offered to trade 61,000 acres of land to the federal government for inclusion in refuge lands in exchange for about 200 acres of right-of-way for an 18-20 mile road linking King Cove to the airport at Cold Bay. The trade was included in a bill passed by Congress and signed into law in 2009. The deal requires the approval of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The road is key for the residents of King Cove, blessed with a beautiful place to live and cursed with a dangerous place to fly -- not to mention often rough passage on water to Cold Bay. A road through the refuge wilderness will provide safe passage to the all-weather Cold Bay airport (with two long runways -- 10,500 feet and 6,500 feet) for both medical emergencies and more routine medical trips to Anchorage and the Lower 48.
Now many of those trips are hardly routine. Weather is often fierce in this region. Families with pregnant women are separated for longer times because of the dicey nature of flying in and out of King Cove; patients with medical emergencies face rough trips across Cold Bay by boat; Coast Guard helicopter flights out of Kodiak are expensive and only called upon in dire emergencies. King Cove tried a hovercraft, which worked in ferrying patients and passengers to Cold Bay, but town officials say it was too expensive and difficult to keep fully crewed.
King Cove has sought the road connection for decades, and been rebuffed for decades. About 15 years ago, then Sen. Ted Stevens struck a $37.5 million deal for the hovercraft, authorization for a road to a terminal point and improvements to the King Cove clinic. But it remains clear that a road is the simplest solution.
The proposed land swap and road deal has the unanimous support of the Alaska Legislature, Gov. Sean Parnell, the Congressional delegation, the Alaska Federation of Natives and the National Congress of American Indians.
Opposition has been as fierce as the King Cove weather. Environmental groups invoked the "slippery slope" argument, that a road built for limited use would create pressure for more use. In their view, a road not only degrades the refuge but leads to further degradation.
And some of them suspect the road is not unpaved with good intentions. They fear eventual use of the road by Peter Pan Seafoods, the major employer in King Cove, to ship seafood from Cold Bay across the Pacific. Peter Pan has never called for the road.
Finally, talk of a new landing craft for medical and other transport may have influenced the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recommend "no action" on the land swap in its final environmental impact statement. In other words, no deal and no road.
Secretary Jewell has the last word. We hope she'll consider the following and agree to the road:
• By law the road would be restricted to non-commercial use. It could not be a seafood export corridor. In addition, the law requires mitigation measures including barriers along both sides of the road to keep four-wheelers from rambling the refuge.
• Stanley Mack, mayor of King Cove and a lifelong resident, says a road would be passable 95 percent of the time, providing the most reliable access of any alternative. Critics have said the same storms that ground aircraft and hammer boats often would make the road too dangerous to travel. But Laura Tanis, spokeswoman for the Aleutians East Borough, pointed out that King Cove already has a road crew able to keep a gravel corridor open in most conditions.
• King Cove residents would realize a long-sought improvement in their lives -- and some recognition of the fact that Aleut voices were hardly heard when the wildlife range was designated wilderness more than 40 years ago.
• The refuge has weathered far greater intrusions. Thousands of American GIs were part of the military installation at Cold Bay during World War II. Roads were built -- some still run to the shores of Izembeck Lagoon, the heart of the refuge with its eel grass beds and migratory bird feeding grounds. What King Cove seeks is far less disruptive. This isn't a project on the scale of Pebble or the Susitna/Watana dam. This is a one-lane gravel road with a dozen miles of groundbreaking construction.
Will there be some disruption? Yes, particularly in the construction period. Is there risk to parts of the refuge? Yes, if you buy the vision of four-wheelers gone wild. But with wise management, the Pacific brant, swans, caribou and grizzlies won't be endangered. Izembek will continue to be magnificent -- home ground and subsistence to the people of King Cove.
It's in a different ecosystem, but the 80-mile road through Denali National Park shows that such a project doesn't sound a death knell for wilderness.
The road is a lifeline. Build it, manage it and take good care of the refuge it passes through.
BOTTOM LINE: Build the King Cove to Cold Bay road. We'll still have a refuge worthy of the name.