Our View: Secretary makes wrong call on Izembek road

Erik Hill

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a bad decision last week in rejecting a land swap and a one-lane gravel road to connect the people of King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

The better decision would have been to approve the land swap, adding tens of thousands of acres to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, in exchange for a narrow corridor across the refuge for the King Cove-Cold Bay link. That link remains the safest and surest route to get patients from King Cove to advanced care in Anchorage and beyond for emergencies and routine medical care.

The proposal had strict safeguards for the refuge, which are world-class grounds for migratory birds and wildlife like brown bears and caribou. The road was to be restricted to medical use, bounded by barriers to discourage off-road rambling, and with a specific prohibition against commercial use.

In short, this road was to be a lifeline through the refuge, not the desecration of a sanctuary. Careful construction and smart management could have forged a link that kept traffic light and wildlife thriving.

The road would have crossed precious ground. Hence the land swap and restrictions.

The road also would have saved lives.

Costly? Yes, but the state has expressed a willingness to pay. That's an expression the state should continue to press, because then we're asking Uncle Sam for no greenbacks, just a green light.

Opponents have argued that the cost is prohibitive, the precedent dreadful, the future sure to include commercial exploitation and a degradation of the refuge.

Every remote Alaska transportation project comes with sticker shock. As for precedent, Secretary Jewell could have set a superb precedent here by walking the fine line that includes basic human needs and environmental protection -- not to mention a belated respect for Native people long left out of key decisions about the land and waters where they live. To her credit, Jewell traveled to King Cove and Cold Bay to look and listen. But many residents felt she came away without understanding that we could have the road and the refuge too, with the blessings of both.

We often see strong claimants with weak claims -- well-funded, politically connected interests pursuing their own agendas to profit themselves, often at the expense of the common good.

In contrast, King Cove residents are weak claimants with a strong claim.

Their claim remains valid, and a road remains the best way to satisfy it.

BOTTOM LINE: Secretary Jewell fails to take the right road.