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Alaska lawmakers offer harsh criticism over Izembek land swap rejection

Suzanna Caldwell
Laurel Andrews photo

Christmas won't be coming early for residents of King Cove. On Monday, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a proposed land swap with the state of Alaska, effectively killing the prospect of an emergency access road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

Alaska's congressional leaders were quick to condemn the decision.

“(Jewell's decision) is largest pile of horse manure ever delivered on Christmas,” said Rep. Don Young.

“It's the same sad story -- a federal agency that doesn't listen to Alaskans,” said Sen. Mark Begich.

“This is setting the people of King Cove back 20 years,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in press conference Monday.

It's the latest development in a quest for the people of the two tiny communities located near the far western end of the Alaska Peninsula to try and build an 11-mile gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that would provide emergency transport access from King Cove to Cold Bay, home to one of the longest runways in Alaska. The decision to reject the swap came after a four-year analysis and a visit from Jewell to King Cove in August.

Bad weather has on multiple occasions hampered the ability to fly people of King Cove -- a remote Alaska Peninsula community of about 950 people located 640 miles southwest of Anchorage -- to Cold Bay, 25 miles to the northwest. King Cove has no doctor or hospital. The community can often be plagued by gale-force winds and stormy, foggy conditions that can limit air travel. Over the last 30 years, a dozen people have died from either plane crashes or being unable to leave the town for advanced medical treatment.

In her decision, Jewell cited the need to protect the wildlife that makes use of the refuge, including shorebirds, waterfowl, seals, salmon and grizzly bears.

“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,” Jewell said in a statement. “I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”

A livid Murkowski questioned those other methods in an Anchorage press conference Monday. While there have been improvements to some infrastructure in the region over the last decade -- including to the King Cove medical clinic and the Cold Bay dock -- none have adequately addressed trying to move people out of the island community in a medical emergency. Attempts to use a hovercraft to transport people between the two communities proved unsuccessful. Jewell notes an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry could be more technically and financially viable than a hovercraft, but Murkowski dismissed that notion, saying the era of earmarks is over. She said with the funding in question, the road -- which would be paid for by the state, not federal tax dollars -- should be built.

“The solution is so simple,” Murkowski said. “And the secretary failed.”

Lawmakers across the state were quick to condemn the decision, with everyone from state lawmakers to the entire congressional delegation swiftly opposing Jewell's decision.

“Today’s decision is unconscionable,” Gov. Sean Parnell said in a press release Monday. “This is another irrational decision by the federal government that denies Alaskans access -- in this case access to emergency treatment. As governor, I will continue to fight for the residents of King Cove who deserve much better.”

While Alaska lawmakers criticized the decision, environmentalists praised it. At least 11 environmental groups came out in support of Jewell's decision, citing the delicate habitat that supports dozens of different animals and is an important stopover for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

“We applaud Secretary Jewell’s strong stand to protect Izembek’s wilderness and its unmatched wildlife habitat from the damaging impacts of the proposed road,” said conservation biologist Kiersten Lippmann, of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Clearly, building a road through this remote and ecologically critical area was not in the public interest.”

But Murkowski disagreed. She admitted that after Jewell's visit in August -- which Murkowski accompanied her on -- she did not feel “good vibes” about the Interior Secretary's position on the potential link between the two communities. Murkowski said despite heartfelt pleas from children in the community, Jewell still made mention about the importance of birds in the area.

“The lives of our people, our elders, children and grandchildren are at stake over this issue,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack in a statement. “Are birds really more important than people? It seems so hard to believe that the federal government finds it impossible to accommodate both wildlife and human beings. Is the Obama Administration turning its back on Native Americans?”

“People think the government cares more about the birds than the people of King Cove,” Murkowski said.

“We are not done with this,” she said. “I have not given up on the people of King Cove.”