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Myths muddle effort to carve a road through Alaska's Izembek refuge

Alex DeMarban
An aerial view of King Cove (population 948). Located 18 miles southeast of Cold Bay on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, King Cove was founded in 1911 and incorporated in 1949. Laurel Andrews photo

The guano is piling up at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but it’s not just from the birds.

Up to its ears in the stuff was a recent editorial by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. But he’s not the only one getting it wrong about a proposed road through the wilderness.

Babbitt refused to be interviewed for this story. He was involved with the road nearly two decades ago when he ran the Interior for then-President Bill Clinton, who had threatened to veto the idea.  

The Aleut village of King Cove has long sought the dozen-mile extension through the refuge wilderness. Village leaders say a road would save lives by allowing sick and injured residents to quickly reach Cold Bay, where emergency flights to Anchorage hospitals can land in bad weather and low visibility. Those conditions ground planes at King Cove’s tiny airstrip.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in December refused to allow the road, because the refuge offers important habitat for migratory birds and animals. Alaskans are pressing Jewell to reconsider.

Myth 1: A road for Peter Pan Seafoods

Enter Babbitt’s recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times. It contained a glaring omission that prompted King Cove mayor Henry Mack to call Babbitt “full of shit.” Babbitt and other opponents of the road, apparently want “to confuse the public about the facts” and “repeat this misinformation over and over again so people will accept it as truth,” Mack said.

In his article, Babbitt said the road is really just a way to help Peter Pan Seafoods, which has a processing facility in King Cove, gets its seafood to markets more quickly.

What Babbitt didn’t mention is the 2009 congressional law that gave Jewell the chance to approve a single-lane gravel road. The law says the road must be noncommercial.

Maybe Babbitt assumed Congress will one day rewrite the law? Maybe he thinks the seafood processing plant will find a loophole? Who knows, since he wouldn’t talk.

Dale Schwarzmiller, a Peter Pan executive in Alaska, said in a statement the law is clear. The seafood plant in the village of 1,000 residents will get just one benefit from a road: faster medical help for employees. He called it “deceitful and cynical” to make Peter Pan’s “supposed” commercial interests “the villain in this battle.”

Myth 2: Who’s paying for the road

Fiscal watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste piled on with its own commentary, citing Babbitt’s editorial for support. It awarded Sen. Lisa Murkowski its “March Porker of the Month,” arguing that she wanted to tap federal funds to build a road for the seafood plant.

That attack makes quite the leap -- no one knows how the road will be funded. But it’s not as bad as another Babbitt assumption: That Murkowski will probably try attaching a legislative rider to a “bill mandating that the project be built at taxpayer’s expense.”

Murkowski hasn’t requested federal funds. Her office, in fact, has said the state will pay for construction and maintenance of the road.

That’s not known, either. Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell, said she’s not aware of any such public commitment from the governor, in charge since 2009. She also said it’s too early to talk specifics about financing. Officials with the state Department of Transportation said the same thing, adding that they know of no such public commitments by top state officials.

What we do know is the state has placed the road in its current Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, although that plan can and likely will change.

As of this week, the plan estimated that $21 million will be needed to build 17 miles of road, with part going through the refuge wilderness and another chunk outside. That 17 miles would be the last phase of a longer road connecting King Cove with Cold Bay, some of which has already been built, using mostly federal funds.

For that last 17 miles, the transportation plan estimates design and right of way will cost $4 million. The transportation plan calls for the state paying 10 percent, with the rest from unused federal funds already available to the state.

The transportation plan also estimates an additional $17 million would be needed to build the road. The source of that funding isn’t specified.

And there’s the rub. No one knows. The state could step up to the plate and pay for construction. Or not. The state could also still decide to pay for all the $4 million for design and right of way, if the wilderness road is ever allowed.

By the way, the federal portion of that $4 million had once been earmarked money to be used for what critics call the state’s “Bridges to Nowhere,” such as the Knik Arm Bridge that would connect Anchorage with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It would be ironic if the same money is ever used for what Outside opponents call a “Road to Nowhere.”  

Myth 3: The hovercraft worked

The Aleutians East Borough, essentially the county government for that Alaska Peninsula region, has said it would help maintain the road. It said funds could come in part from selling its hovercraft, something it hopes to do this summer. The hovercraft was part of a $37 million gift from the government in a 1998 deal brokered by the late Sen. Ted Stevens and the Clinton administration.

The hovercraft was supposed to satisfy King Cove’s desire for a road by providing a vehicle for shuttling residents to Cold Bay when planes couldn’t land.

But the hovercraft -- which residents have long maintained they had no choice but to accept -- couldn’t operate in all conditions. It worked sometimes, getting people to the hospital at times. But some of the same bad weather that kept emergency flights out of King Cove also shut down the hovercraft. Meanwhile, its huge operational costs were unsustainable for the borough, in part because a special crew from Washington state was needed to operate it.

Myth 4: No one’s dying

Supporters of a road often talk about the 19 lives lost in King Cove because the road doesn't exist. But the Wilderness Society recently released a publication saying no one had lost their life during an emergency flight since 1990.

However, that argument ignores the sick and injured who suffer while waiting for weather to calm.

And it doesn’t mean no one has died since 1990 because there’s no road to Cold Bay. Borough officials acknowledge there have been no medevac fatalities since 1990. But they say at least five local lives could have been saved since then, had a road existed.

They are:

• Walter Samuelson died Feb. 1, 1990, after suffering a major heart attack. His body had rejected a heart transplant, due to complications caused by being forced to wait two days for medical evacuation because of bad weather. 
• Ernest Mack, who died in March 1997 after waiting four days in King Cove for medical care. He was 67.
• Harry Gould Sr., who suffered congestive heart failure at age 80. Bad weather meant he couldn’t get a timely flight to Anchorage. He died Aug. 26, 2000.
 Newborn twins lost in July 2007, after their mother went into labor prematurely. The mother was unable to get adequate medical help. Both babies weighed less than 2 pounds at birth. One baby lived a week; the other died within two months.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com.