Paul Jenkins: Izemek road decision defies reason and decency

Paul Jenkins

The federal government's hypocrisy when it comes to the life-or-death question of building a short, gravel track in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect the fishing village of King Cove to the all-weather runway at nearby Cold Bay is laughable.

When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell decided to protect the birds in the Alaska Peninsula refuge from the rare passage of a vehicle bumping down a proposed emergency-use-only, one-lane road, she must have forgotten -- forgotten about the refuge's fall waterfowl hunting and the hundreds, if not thousands, of hunters it draws like a giant, quacking magnet each year. Or their guns. Or their boats. Or their guides.

After all, the refuge is a veritable hunter's paradise. So says the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Its website describes the 315,000-acre refuge: "Fall waterfowl hunting is spectacular, as well, and hardy wetland enthusiasts can pursue light and dark geese (Canada geese, black brant), dabbling ducks (mallard, pintail), diving ducks, and sea ducks. Ptarmigan are abundant and are year round residents. Izembek is home to approximately 180 species of birds, and of these, there are a wide variety of waterfowl available to hunt."

Really. "A wide variety of waterfowl to hunt." I am not making this up.

Along with the lucky birds Jewell et al. are dedicated to protecting at the risk of Aleut villagers' lives, there is the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon's vast expanse of eel grass that allows the birds to fatten up for their annual migration south. Apparently boats and hunters and who knows what else have no effect on eel grass, either.

Keep in mind the birds, at least the smart ones who beat long evolutionary odds, roost in the refuge just long enough to gorge themselves and are long gone when the region's notoriously cranky weather turns particularly vicious. That's the same weather that makes travel to and from King Cove so often dangerous and the proposed road so necessary.

So, we are left to believe that the very same critters and birds that need federal protection from the occasional vehicle are completely oblivious to hunters and their shotguns or rifles in the fall? Or campers? Or wildlife photographers? Or fishermen? Oblivious to the noise? Or encroachment? Or roads already in the refuge? Those very same Brant and ducks somehow are immune to all that but a car happening by once in a blue moon on a 9-mile road not all that near their stomping grounds causes them to abandon the refuge forever?

The Interior secretary's concern for the birds and eel grass and furry critters is especially difficult to fathom when you read the rest of the federal Web page describing Izembek's wonders.

It touts fishing the refuge's five species of salmon and "world famous" hunting opportunities, "particularly for brown bear and waterfowl." It notes the southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd is available for hunting too. Then, there are the moose.

It gets better: The government says "backpacking and remote camping can be spectacular. However, caution should always be used in regard to rapidly changing weather conditions. Even during the summer months, high winds and heavy rainstorms are common." Again, I'm not making this up.

Ask King Cove villagers about the lousy weather. It is why they wanted a road in the first place. Since 1981, more than a dozen people have died during evacuations from King Cove or awaiting better weather.

Since Jewell abrogated the federal government's trust responsibility to King Cove villagers at Christmas, a Coast Guard medevac helicopter from Cold Bay was forced to battle gale-force winds and blizzard conditions to rescue a 63-year-old villager suffering heart failure and desperately in need of medical help. It will not be the last such rescue, and eventually one of these evacuations will end badly.

Jewell promised Interior would come up with road alternatives. So far, it has done nothing. Her rejection of the land swap was simply Obama administration sop for environmentalists who fear the road could set precedent for other refuges and are angry about Arctic drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline.

To assuage them, she endangered King Cove residents. Her land swap refusal illustrates what happens when government abandons even the pretense of trying to do the right thing for the right reason.

Instead, Jewell's decision stands as a monument to the political excess and arrogance that are this administration's hallmark.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the

Paul Jenkins