It’s easy for highly paid former federal officials like Bruce Babbitt and Jamie Clark to pretend that the lives of nearly 1,000 indigenous Aleuts in King Cove, Alaska don’t really matter. It’s also easy for them to say that a vast “array of creatures” -- most of which are only passing through as migratory waterfowl, while we live in King Cove year-round -- are somehow jeopardized by a one-lane gravel road of less than 11 miles (paid for with state of Alaska funds) through a so-called wilderness area that is part of a 450,000 acres of federal holdings that once belonged to the Aleut. These lands are part of our ancestral heritage, and we Aleuts have lived in harmony with this environment for more than 4,000 years.
It’s also easy for these highly paid professional “environmentalists” to attack our elected representatives who are advocating for the protection of our lives, health and way of life. Would Mr. Babbitt, as Arizona governor, have denied an Arizona Indian tribe its only way to get its people from isolation to medical facilities in Flagstaff, Phoenix or some other Arizona hospital? We doubt it. Where was Mr. Babbitt’s trust responsibility to the Aleut people of Alaska when he was the Interior Secretary from 1993 to 2001? Perhaps his trust responsibility was selective. If Ms. Clark feels so strongly about roads in wildlife refuges, why doesn’t she have Defenders of Wildlife advocate for the removal of roads within the Backwater Wildlife Refuge, which touts its paved road as a key element of visiting the “world renowned refuge,” which is home to an equally large number of migratory birds and other creatures in her home state of Maryland?
Such hypocrisy is hard for our indigenous people to understand, much less stomach. We live every day at the edge of the world in a dangerous environment. We only want what virtually all other Americans have -- a safe and dependable way to get our kids, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends to a hospital for emergency medical treatment and regular checkups. We have a clinic, but it can only do so much.
The Aleutian region where we live has some of the worst weather in the world, but we know how to live with it. However, when one of our Aleut brothers or sisters is grievously injured or sick, the clinic can only stabilize them and hope to get them to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage for the major treatment they need. Pregnant women have to leave four to six weeks before their due date to in case of a prenatal emergency. Would Mr. Babbitt or Ms. Clark subject themselves or their family, including infants, small children and the elderly, to the indignity of being hoisted onto a dock in a crab pot after a perilous three-hour boat ride across rough seas because a single-engine plane can’t get into King Cove during harsh weather? We doubt it.
It’s interesting that these two self-professed experts made these statements when neither has ever been to King Cove. They are welcome to visit and see for themselves the harsh conditions we deal with on a daily basis. They also failed to disclose that this is a road which was approved by Congress as part of a land exchange providing over 61,000 acres of state and Alaska Native land in exchange for about 206 acres to construct the road.
We’ve tried the hovercraft solution and it doesn’t work. The water in Cold Bay is too rough for the hovercraft to navigate more than 70 percent of the time. An emergency solution that works less than 30 percent of the time is no solution at all.
And the allegation that a road would be impassible is nonsense. We keep our roads open 365 days a year. Alaskans know how to keep roads open in winter, unlike Mr. Babbitt’s and Ms. Clark’s Washington, D.C., which shut down this year based on the mere threat of snow.
The bottom line for the indigenous Aleut people of King Cove is that we have lived here for 4,000 years, and we are loyal Americans. We will keep fighting for our simple right to get a very short, one-lane gravel road to an all-weather airport which was built by some of our relatives during World War II. It is our lifeline to our future.
Henry Mack is King Cove mayor, Stanley Mack is Aleutians East Borough mayor, and Della Trumble is a member of the King Cove Corporation and Agdaagux Tribal Council.
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