Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich aren't telling the whole story in their recent opinion piece on the controversial proposal to build a road through federally designated wilderness in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge - a proposal rejected by Congress in 1998, twice studied by federal agencies, and recently rejected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Compass: Save lives with a road from King Cove to Cold Bay, Aug. 26)
In an effort to set a chilling precedent for Congressionally-designated wilderness areas across the nation, our senators point to heart-wrenching stories of King Cove residents who have faced medical emergencies. What they don't say is that residents in hundreds of remote communities across Alaska face the same challenges.
For 17 years I lived in Alaska communities accessible only by plane or boat, including Cold Bay, so I am familiar with how weather impacts travel at Izembek. In 1994, the day I was moving to Cold Bay with two young children, our plane was delayed in Anchorage due to weather in Cold Bay. The following day we left Anchorage but were forced to land in Port Heiden, waiting for weather to improve in Cold Bay.
Over the years, I witnessed the fury of nature, causing me to question the sensibility of constructing a gravel road for the purpose of medical evacuation. Proponents suggest that a road is necessary for safety because planes and boats are sometimes grounded by inclement weather, yet road vehicles are also useless under such conditions. In Cold Bay, we walked when drifting snow made the quarter-mile road between our house and school impassible to vehicles. A USCG helicopter landed in Cold Bay with a patient but our ambulance was blocked by drifting snow. The DOT was often challenged to keep a flat 2-mile runway plowed. How would they maintain a 33-mile road (the entire distance from King Cove to Cold Bay) over steep and treacherous terrain, and at what cost to taxpayers?
Given the senators' recent article, one might envision King Cove a tiny village lacking medical services with residents needing access to a larger Cold Bay. Actually, King Cove has a population 10 times that of Cold Bay and a modern clinic with 17 medical professionals and a BLS ambulance, far more than most remote communities. Staff include a CNP and PA who should be able to provide emergency medical services during the "golden hour of care" recognized by EMS professionals. When my neighbor in Cold Bay suffered a heart attack, a nurse practitioner flew from King Cove to assist our minimally trained volunteers in Cold Bay. Some suggest that Cold Bay's "all weather" airport guarantees access to advanced medical care 600 miles away. During my tenure on Cold Bay's EMS team, another neighbor died in the care of devoted EMS volunteers while awaiting a flight to Anchorage.
Congress thoughtfully considered weather and terrain 15 years ago when they decided that a road through Izembek Wilderness was not a sensible solution to improve health services for King Cove residents. Instead they had American taxpayers spend $37.5 million with passage of the King Cove Health and Safety Act to upgrade King Cove's medical clinic and purchase a $9 million hovercraft. More than 30 medical evacuations were successfully performed with the hovercraft, transporting patients to Cold Bay in a fraction of the time that would be required to travel the proposed 33-mile gravel road and endanger patients by wasting precious time.
Projected road construction costs exceed $80 million, including what has been spent so far, and annual maintenance expenses are likely to be similar to the hovercraft King Cove abandoned, citing unaffordable maintenance. Taxpayers already paid to solve King Cove's transportation issues. Despite sweeping cuts during federal sequestration, our Congressional delegation is promoting a hugely expensive gravel road that would likely take rather than save lives.
The weather has not changed since Congress provided $37.5 million for alternatives to remedy the safety concerns of King Cove residents. People throughout Alaska accept that weather may limit travel options. They do so willingly for the privilege of living on the fringe of wilderness in our grand state.
Terri Mach is a former emergency medical services volunteer and former resident of Cold Bay.