U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Monday rejected a proposal for a one-lane gravel road linking the isolated community of King Cove with the all-weather airport in Cold Bay some 22 miles away.
Jewell's decision puts an end for now to a contentious, years-long federal review of plans to put the road through the middle of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to serve King Cove's 950 residents.
King Cove has a clinic, but no hospital or doctor. Residents must fly 600 miles to Anchorage, via Cold Bay's World War II airstrip, for most medical procedures including serious trauma cases and childbirth. Frequent gale-force winds and thick fog often delay or jeopardize medevac flights.
Della Trumble, spokesperson for the Agdaagux Tribal Council and King Cove Corp., called Jewell's decision "a slap in the face" just in time for the holiday week.
The Interior secretary called her personally, Trumble said, but she was at the store and only got the message when she returned to the office.
"She says that she knows that I'm not going to like her decision and wishes me and my family a very merry Christmas," she said. "I've not returned the call because I don't trust myself."
Over the years, more than a dozen people needing medical help have died in plane crashes or because they couldn't get treatment in time, according to a community statement released Monday.
Etta Kuzakin, a 36-year-old King Cove resident who serves as Agdaagux tribal president, needed an emergency Caesarean section in March after going into early labor with her now 9-month-old daughter, Sunnie Rae. Giving birth in King Cove could have killed her and her baby, she said.
But with medevac flights grounded by ugly weather, Kuzakin waited in labor for 10 hours until the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flew her out in the afternoon.
"If there had been a road, it would be two hours out," she said. "I sat there in labor not knowing if I was going to die or my kid was going to die. Pretty traumatic."
Jewell's review of the project follows a February decision against the road from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior agency. It found the road could irreparably damage both habitat and subsistence activities at Izembek, a narrow isthmus of land between two lagoons that holds nearly all the world's population of Pacific black brant -- a small goose -- as well as grizzlies, caribou, salmon and millions of shorebirds and waterfowl.
Road opponents called Jewell's decision the right one for environmental but also economic and even safety reasons.
An analysis by the Santa Fe-based Center for Sustainable Economy found the road could cost $47 to $54 million to build, far more than Interior calculated. Costs are likely to exceed benefits by a factor of 13, according to the analysis, which called the road "clearly not in the public interest."
Dr. Peter Mjos, who began his medical career in 1973 serving eastern Aleutian communities including King Cove and Cold Bay, opposed the road on safety grounds due to the possibility of drunk driving accidents especially in the blowing snow that frequently hampers visibility in the area, he wrote Jewell in October.
"The proposed road would be a calamity-in-waiting," Mjos wrote. "Driving the proposed road while impaired, in the worst conditions imaginable, would likely end tragically."
Nicole Whittington-Evans, with The Wilderness Society office in Anchorage, said putting a road through Izembek would also set a significant new national precedent of designating a road corridor through the center of a designated wilderness.
In her decision, Jewell rejected a proposed land exchange with the state of Alaska that originated in 2009 under former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a necessary first step to build a road that would have transferred more than 56,000 of state and Alaska Native land to the refuge in exchange for access to the road corridor.
But King Cove's push for some kind of road for medical but also personal and commercial reasons started back in the late 1980s. A road would connect the community's Peter Pan Seafoods plant -- one of the largest cannery operations in the state -- with one of the state's longest runways in Cold Bay.
A ban on commercial traffic was part of the deal for the current road proposal, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Monday.
A champion of the road for years, Murkowski, R-Alaska, threatened in March to hold up Jewell's confirmation over the Obama Administration's opposition to the road.
She called Jewell's decision Monday "heartless and ill-informed" and said it ignored the Interior Department's trust responsibility to Alaska Native people. Murkowski said her staff on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had been told there would be no "Christmas surprise" on a decision.
"I am angry. I am disappointed. I am frustrated. I am sad for the people of King Cove," she said in an interview. "Four thousand miles from where they're sitting, somebody has said you can't have a 10-mile, one-lane, non-commercial use road so you can access the second longest runway in the state of Alaska to get out for medical reasons."
A flurry of statements from elected officials followed the announcement about Jewell's decision. The Alaska House Majority Cause sent out a press release headlined, "Grinch Steals Christmas from King Cove." Congressman Don Young's office headlined its press statement, "Largest Pile of Horse Manure Ever Delivered on Christmas."
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich called the decision disappointing but not surprising. Gov. Sean Parnell, in his statement, called the decision "unconscionable" and another "irrational decision by the federal government that denies Alaskans access -- in this case access to emergency treatment."
Jewell and Murkowski traveled to King Cove in late August to hear from community members and flew over the refuge to get a glimpse of where the road corridor would connect with existing roads built during World War II.
Jewell, in a statement Monday, said her decision was based in part on her August visit, as well as a report from Kevin Washburn, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, regarding the medical evacuation benefits of the proposed road.
"Izembek is an extraordinary place -- internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species -- and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness," she said.
Nothing precludes the state, Aleutians East Borough or the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay from implementing alternatives for transportation, Jewell said.
Road opponents point out that taxpayers have already spent millions helping improve access to and from King Cove.
A bid to find an alternative to the Izembek road spearheaded by the late Sen. Ted Stevens in 1997 led Congress to provide roughly $37.5 million in federal funding to upgrade the King Cove medical clinic, improve the King Cove airstrip, and build an unpaved road to a hovercraft terminal from King Cove.
The Aleutians East Borough ran the hovercraft service for three years until was discontinued in 2010.
The hovercraft was too expensive to run and could only run on certain weather days, Kazakin said.
"The only permanent solution is to give us the road," she said.
The borough has indicated that if a proposed road was not constructed, it would develop an alternative transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay, an Interior official said. Additionally, the borough has stated that an aluminum landing craft-passenger ferry could be more technically and financially viable than a hovercraft.
Road supporters say they won't give up the fight.
Begich said he plans to introduce legislation directing the federal government to build the road "so the residents of King Cove can rely on the same basic access to critical medical care enjoyed by other Americans."
Murkowski, who holds influential positions as ranking member on the Energy Committee and on the Senate Appropriations' Interior Department subcommittee, said she plans to review Washburn's report as a possible avenue for future action.
"Yes, there are legislative options but I've got to be honest with the people of King Cove that legislation is going to be very difficult to accomplish," Murkowski said. "If we couldn't get the executive action we were hoping to get through this secretary, what other alternatives are there?"
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.