Paul Jenkins: King Cove should get its road

Paul Jenkins
This undated photo released by the Aleutians East Borough shows the village of King Cove, Alaska. The 800 residents of King Cove live in relative isolation. A proposal to build a road to the village through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has escalated into a national debate.

If Interior Secretary Ken Salazar balks at overruling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's myopic decision blocking a short, one-lane road between King Cove and Cold Bay - and it stands - there is a single certainty. Someone will die.

There is no maybe. Sooner. Later. Someone will die.

King Cove is the poster village for the disconnect between Alaska and a contemptuous federal government; illustrative of an imperial bureaucracy that values a duck above a human life; a victim of special interest payoffs and forgotten federal trust responsibilities for Native Alaskans.

Salazar? He sees blocking the road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as balancing the scale for the Obama administration's allowing increased drilling offshore in Alaska; a tit for tat payoff to his green pals who view the road as the devil's work. The Alaska Public Radio Network's KUCB reports that of 72,000 public comments on the swap, 58,000 came from Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife.

A fly speck on the map, King Cove deserves its road. A wind-blown fishing village of about 950 souls in the Aleutians East Borough, it is located on the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaska Peninsula, out near the end, about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage and tucked up hard against the refuge.

For more than 30 years, it has battled to scrape a sliver of a road along the edge of the refuge to Cold Bay, 18 miles away, so the village's sick and injured can reach a 10,415-foot, all-weather runway complete with a fully operational instrument approach system.

King Cove's aircraft are grounded or delayed half the time by ferocious weather. Eleven have died in unsuccessful medical evacuations and other plane trips in and out of King Cove over the past 40 years. The worst? In 1981, when a medevac crash killed all four aboard. If patients try to reach Cold Bay by boat, they face a two- to three-hour, hair-raising trip through life-threatening seas.

Congress in 1998 dodged the issue with $37.5 million that, among other things, paid for a $9 million hovercraft to haul villagers between the two communities. It was a bust; too expensive to run.

The latest idea was to trade 56,000 acres of state and Native corporation land for 206 acres in the refuge for a road. The 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act ordered an environmental impact statement. As part of that, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week killed the swap - unless Salazar declares it in the public interest.

The road, off-limits for commercial purposes, would stretch for 9 miles, a single-lane, gravel track, 13 feet wide -- with a barrier on each side to keep vehicles from straying. The borough estimates it would carry perhaps 10 to 15 cars daily. There already are about 40 miles of roads within the refuge.

The road would skirt the southern edge of the 300,000-acre refuge, at times home to emperor geese, black brant and other migratory birds. Environmentalists now claim it would displace tundra swans, which makes villagers chuckle. The swans, it turns out, do not nest in the same place twice and Fish and Wildlife guys are unable to say for certain what, if any, effects a little-used road would have on any of the birds.

But nothing really surprises King Cove residents. Years ago, nobody even bothered to tell them there would be a wildlife refuge nearby, or that it would contain wilderness or affect construction of a road to Cold Bay. Add to that Salazar's refusal, despite six invitations, to meet with King Cove residents or visit the village, and the hard feelings are easier to grasp. Oh, he did deign to have a photo-op with them in Washington, D.C.

King Cove rightly is outraged by the Fish and Wildlife decision. Gov. Sean Parnell is ticked off. Congressman Don Young said it was shameful. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants to move Fish and Wildlife's headquarters to King Cove or have Salazar fly in there monthly during winter. Sen. Mark Begich told the Associated Press it ignores "life and safety realities" of King Cove. All of Alaska should be furious.

Salazar, whose replacement already has been named, could overturn the decision. He has about a month. If he refuses, if it is not changed, someone will die. There is no maybe. Sooner. Later. Someone will die.


Paul Jenkins is editor of the Anchorage Daily