When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, recommended no action on a proposed land exchange between the state of Alaska and the federal government to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, it was met with resounding disappointment from Alaska's congressional delegation. Also dismayed were the residents of King Cove, Alaska, a small community of fewer than 1,000 residents who are anxious for access to the all-weather runway of Cold Bay, just a few miles away but difficult to access by water. Residents say they need the year-round access to the runway for potential medical emergencies requiring evacuations by air. Now, the Interior Department has pledged to give the road proposal another look.
The proposed land swap would exchange 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands for about 200 acres of federal land that would allow for construction of a road. A public comment on the proposed exchange generated more than 72,000 comments, many of which came from environmental interest groups. Following that public comment period, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted for the "no action" stance on the road in early February.
On Thursday, outgoing Secretary of the Interior issued a directive that would leave the proposal open for his successor, and ordered an official with the Indian Affairs office to visit King Cove to revisit the concerns of the community.
Salazar is due to leave office at the end of March. President Barack Obama has nominated Sally Jewell, former head of the outdoor retailer REI, to take over for Salazar. Shortly after Jewell's nomination, Sen. Lisa Murkowski brought up the issue of King Cove to the nominee in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, urging her to revisit the matter should she secure the nomination. On Thursday, Jewell cleared a significant hurdle on her way to a cabinet position, winning the approval of that Committee with only three dissenting votes. Sen. Murkowski announced her support for Jewell on Thursday morning following Salazar's directive on the issue.
"When we're talking about public interest, it's not just the public interest of the land, it's not just the public interest of the waterfowl or the animals that may be in the area," Murkowski, the senior Republican on the Committee, said Thursday morning. "It is the public interest of the people."
Rep. Don Young praised the decision to give the land swap another look, and laid praise on Murkowski for keeping after the issue in Committee hearings.
"The fight is long from over, but I want to thank Senator Murkowski for her tireless work on this issue," Young said in a release. "I will continue to work with her and all parties to resolve this issue once and for all."
Sen. Mark Begich also expressed his interest in giving the proposed road another look, sending a letter to Jewell urging that her first stop in any trip to Alaska be King Cove.
"(T)he Interior Department agreed today to hold an official meeting with Jewell in King Cove to receive additional information on the medical evacuation benefits of the proposed road directly from the community," Begich's office wrote in a statement Thursday morning.
Contact Ben Anderson ben(at)alaskadispatch.com