U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel's rejection of a land swap that would have led to construction of a gravel track linking the remote Alaska Peninsula fishing village of King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay, some 20 miles away, was the federal government at its worst. Callous. Contemptuous. Dreadfully wrong.
Mind you, Jewell did not wield the crushing power of the government to block construction of a multilane, interstate highway through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, or to save lives. She killed a 9-mile, single-lane, gravel sliver barely 13 feet wide that would have linked with roads built on refuge land during World War II.
The proposed track through the refuge would have had barriers on each side and have been used only for emergencies. Commercial vehicles would have been barred. It would have required just 206 acres of the refuge's 300,000. Alaska and the King Cove Native Corp. offered to swap 58,000 acres in return.
She decided instead, Jewell said, to protect the migratory Brant geese and millions of Steller's eiders and other birds that shelter in Izembek and fatten up on the 84,000-acre Izembek Lagoon's vast expanse of eelgrass for their migration south.
Jewell blithely ignored good sense and the federal trust responsibility to Alaska Natives. Make no mistake, in blocking the road -- a decision illustrative of the federal disconnect with Alaska -- she signed somebody's death warrant.
With a road to Cold Bay, the Aleut village of King Cove's 950 residents -- sometimes isolated for days because of the region's ferocious winds and fog -- reliably could have reached Anchorage's hospitals and doctors some 600 miles away. Is a road really needed? The short answer is "absolutely." The community says more than a dozen people needing medical help over the years have died in plane crashes or because they could not reach help in time.
Oh, those who put ducks before human life could not care less. As sop and a payoff to greenies, bird lovers and other special interests, the Congress has poured nearly $40 million into King Cove to avoid allowing the road. Its clinic was upgraded; its airstrip improved; a hovercraft was put on line in 2007. That service failed in 2010, the federal environmental impact draft says, because costs were out of sight, it was difficult to retain trained crews and the area's weather was simply too raw. It is the same weather that often makes boat travel dangerous.
It is always the weather in King Cove. The only logical answer is a road. It always has been.
But if environmentalists and their pals on the left do anything well, it is ignoring the obvious, trotting out phony studies and mustering support from those without a clue. Of the 72,000 public comments about the swap handed the federal government, KUCB reported, 58,000 were from Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife -- which also partnered with a economics outfit that found the road -- surprise! -- uneconomic.
The road fight is decades long, and King Cove residents have been treated badly from day one. When the refuge was created next door, nobody even bothered to tell them it would contain wilderness or affect construction of a road to Cold Bay. Federal potentates refused to meet with the villagers or to visit King Cove. But villagers continued to fight.
Congress approved a land trade in 2009, but the Omnibus Public Land Management Act required an environmental impact statement. As part of that, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February killed the swap -- without being able to say with certainty a road would have detrimental effects on anything.
Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar left to his replacement, Jewell, the decision about whether to overturn the decision. Sen. Lisa Murkowski threatened to block Jewell's confirmation because of the Obama administration's road opposition and got Jewell to travel with her to King Cove in August.
Murkowski is not happy with Jewell's decision, calling it "heartless and ill-informed." She is being kind.
So, imagine somebody you love is suffering appendicitis, or a heart attack, or a birth gone amiss. You are in King Cove's clinic, waiting, as a storm rages. Minutes count. A plane to take them to a doctor, to a hospital, to help, is 20 miles away. But there is no way to get there.
Your only hope is that their name is not on that death warrant Jewell signed.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.