Road from King Cove to Cold Bay is vital

Henry Mack

My name is Henry Mack and I am the mayor of King Cove. While most folks in Alaska came from somewhere else, my family has always lived and fished on the shores of the Alaska Peninsula. As a commercial fisherman, going out to sea has shaped my values: hard work, perseverance and enjoyment of each moment because life lived on the edge of wilderness can be quickly claimed.

For more than three decades now, King Cove has battled to have a road to Cold Bay's all-weather airport. For us, it is, and has always been, about transportation safety and dependability, allowing everyone, from our elders to our children, to reach medical centers in times of emergency. When the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 passed, we crossed a major hurdle. Pending approval by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, a small, single-lane gravel road, requiring about 200 acres of federal government land, will be built from King Cove through a small section of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay. In exchange for the federal road corridor, the state of Alaska and the King Cove (Native) Corp. will give up about 60,000 acres to the federal government -- that's 60,000 versus the 200 acres for our road -- how can that not be a great deal?

We have again invited Secretary Salazar to personally see these lands in mid-August when he will be visiting Alaska.

Currently, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is conducting an environmental impact study on the land exchange and road. King Cove is fully engaged in this process to help ensure its thoroughness and timely outcome. While I respect that the USF&W must conduct its research without haste or pressure, and with appropriate focus on the diverse species of our refuge, I remain vigilant in advocating for the well-being of my people, who also have long called the area of the refuge home.

I remain vigilant because someone must speak for the five King Cove residents who needed emergency care last winter. On one of those nights, King Cove's winds blew more than 80 mph relentlessly with less than a half-mile visibility. It was a tough time to be 80-year old Lucy Kenezuroff with chest pains. After flying 300 miles to reach her, the Coast Guard helicopter could not land and diverted to Cold Bay. Not until morning, 17 hours from the first call for help, was she on her way to a doctor's care. So when I attend EIS meetings, Lucy and her family are with me, and I remember their white-knuckle night when time was measured in ragged heartbeats.

I also carry the memory of the 5-month-old girl with erratic breathing and the 63-year-old with abdominal pain. For these constituents, a road could have meant moments waiting for an ambulance, instead of praying for the wind to die down.

I am one of many King Cove mayors who have traveled, testified, cajoled, signed checks, negotiated a land swap, all in an effort to persuade powerful people thousands of miles away that our transportation dangers are real and our motives sincere. We know everyone in this process wants to get it right. We recognize that the final EIS is still a year away and we will be patient. But as mayor, I am determined to ensure that our hard work and perseverance pay off on land as it does on the sea -- every offspring of every species must be respected in this process.

I don't just hear the wind at night. I hear the helicopter that could not land, the baby who could not breathe, the elder whose heart raced against time. Then I remember how fragile our lives on the edge of this beautiful wilderness can be and how nothing is more important than this: safe, reliable and life-saving access to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay.

Henry Mack is the mayor, a commercial fisherman and a lifelong resident of King Cove.