Compass: Grant King Cove its road; people will be safer, and birds will still fly


Nils Warnock, author of last Saturday's Compass piece ("Road in Izembek would damage a fragile region," March 22) frames his opposition to a road on the well-being of migratory birds. Much is said about bird varieties and bird habitat, bird hunters and bird diets, bird comings and bird goings, yet no mention of us year-round human residents. King Cove is a town of 960 people. We claim title to thousands of years of stewardship over this refuge of "international importance," and yet we are nowhere to be found in this piece. As mayor, as an Aleut, that omission sticks in my craw, pun intended.

I take the Audubon Alaska director at his word that he studies and loves birds. What might surprise him, but shouldn't, is so do we. Living as we do in the "fragile region" he describes, we love their arrivals in April and May, our very own announcers of spring. We admire their instinct and their courage, how they know just the right weather for launching themselves by the thousands into an autumn sky. Their seasonal return to a well-preserved habitat is as much our blessing as theirs. We have bird knowledge in our DNA.

Experience is one way of knowing. Science is another. Let's talk bird science. Eighty to 90 percent of the nutrient-rich eelgrass that birds love lines the shore of the Izembek Lagoon, a huge body of water spanning 150 square miles. Birds like it there; food is plentiful. Two miles to the south is the much smaller Kinzarof Lagoon. And 800 meters from its shore is where we want to build our preferred road route. Our scientists for this project are experts in environmental assessment and particularly in the health and well-being of migratory waterfowl. They have studied our road site and concluded that 800 meters is sufficient buffer for Pacific Black Brant to eat and rest undisturbed by our single-lane road a half-mile away.

This road will be driven by emergency personnel as they deliver sick and injured people to a waiting medevac that will fly another three hours to emergency medical care. How I wish we could have made that trip two weeks ago, when two members of the Wilson family lay in the King Cove Clinic. Walter Wilson Jr. had displaced both hips and fractured his pelvis in a fishing accident. His 1-month-old son had a serious respiratory illness. While King Cove's only physician's assistant held the raggedly breathing baby, everyone held their breath a little, waiting for the sound of an MH-60 helicopter. When it arrived, baby got the first ride out that morning. Dad did what fathers do, he sent his future on ahead and he went second.

The story ends happily. Both are doing well. At some point dad was told just how close a call it was, that his baby had stopped breathing in the middle of that long night. The picture of Walter cradling his son in his arms will never leave me. In the faces of such a near-miss, two more tragedies narrowly averted, I cannot reconcile myself to a future that could have so easily not had Wyatt or Walter Wilson Jr. in it.

We will have to respectfully disagree with opponents like Mr. Warnock, who conclude a gravel road is not conducive to a healthy bird habitat. Where I live, bird habitat is not distinguished from human habitat. I have no doubt that birds will make their peace with our seven miles of gravel road that will safely skirt Kinzarof Lagoon, a half-mile away from their nearest eelgrass café.

As someone wise once said: "A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children." Thank you Mr. Audubon, I couldn't have said it better myself. I bet you would appreciate that this "Wetland of International Importance" is what your philosophy looks like in practice. I think you'd give us some credit for that.

Henry Mack is the mayor of King Cove.