Compass: Road would harm Izembek; King Cove needs another way

Imagine if all of Alaska's salmon had to pass through one wetland in Canada before returning to Alaska to spawn. Then imagine that someone in Canada wanted to build a road through that wetland. Alaskans might very well declare war on our neighbors.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is that kind of chokepoint for Pacific Black Brant and the Emperor goose. It is the only place in the world where nearly the entire population of Pacific Brant (more than 90 percent) stops during their migration between Arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds in Mexico. Izembek contains the largest known single stand of eelgrass in the world and the Brant rely on that eel grass to fuel their migration.

More than 90 percent of the world's population of Emperor geese also stops to feed at Izembek during spring and fall migrations, while 20,000 - 40,000 Steller's eiders, a federally threatened species, molt and spend winter among the eelgrass.

The Izembek eelgrass beds make this astoundingly important refuge an irreplaceable link in the Pacific Flyway. The Ramsar Convention recognizes Izembek as a Wetland of International Importance, and the State of Alaska recognizes Izembek as "constituting one of the most important ecological sites for waterbirds in North America." That makes it important for people too.

In Alaska, the Association of Village Council Presidents, the recognized tribal organization and non-profit Alaska Native Regional Corporation for 56 member Native villages in western Alaska, has opposed the King Cove Road since 1998. Why? The average annual estimated subsistence harvest of birds by Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages amounted to 64 pounds of meat for every household, the majority of pounds coming from waterfowl that rely on Izembek for their survival.

Across rural Alaska, subsistence users may harvest over 11,000 Brant and over 4,000 Brant eggs in a good year. Sport hunters in Alaska, Canada, Washington, Oregon, California and Mexico take another 3,000 Brant annually. They all need a healthy Izembek Lagoon, as do the many people along the migration flyway whose lives are enriched by functioning ecosystems and healthy wildlife and bird populations.

An Izembek road will lead to increased incursions and disturbance into a fragile area and to impacts that will affect Alaskans, Canadians and people all along the Pacific Flyway. Unfortunately, Alaska's own Sen. Lisa Murkowski has led the forces who have chosen to simplify the Izembek issue to one between "extreme" environmentalists and two small Alaska Peninsula communities; that may be good politics, but it is plainly inaccurate. Izembek Refuge and the birds that rely on it play an important role in many people's lives across Alaska as well as in Canada and the Lower 48.

Sally Jewell made the difficult but correct call to protect Izembek; that is her job and responsibility as the Secretary of Interior. Sen. Murkowski could serve all Alaskans by working to protect the critical areas that produce the resources that many of our state's communities (as well as many communities outside of Alaska) rely on for food and for other reasons, and by looking to an alternative solution to ensure the safety of the people of King Cove and Cold Bay.

Nils Warnock is the executive director of Audubon Alaska. He has doctorate in ecology and has studied shorebirds and waterfowl across Alaska from the North Slope to the Seward Peninsula to the Yukon-Kuskokwim and Copper River deltas.