AD Main Menu

Stopping Izembek road protects villages and subsistence resources

Myron Naneng
OPINION: After decades of restoration work, allowing a road through important subsistence waterfowl habitat in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge would be a step backward. Pictured: Mature and immature emperor geese at Izembek. Bill Raften/FWS photo

The subsistence way of life in western Alaska comes with many challenges. To feed our families, we hunt, fish and gather food from our natural surroundings, so taking care of our resources is the only way to ensure our future. That is why the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Waterfowl Conservation Committee, which represents 56 rural villages, passed a resolution in 1998 to oppose the idea of a building a road from King Cove to Cold Bay.

The Pacific black brant and emperor geese that rest and feed at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge during their spring and fall migrations are an important food source for villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the proposed road would harm the refuge and destroy habitat that is vital for these and other species that feed Alaska Native families.

Development and habitat loss in the Pacific Flyway during the 1960s through the 1980s significantly reduced the population of Pacific black brant and other waterfowl. Our people and communities have sacrificed years of subsistence hunting and egg gathering since 1984 to allow the brant and emperor geese to recover. Currently, we have been closed to hunting emperor geese along the western Alaska flyway routes from Kodiak to Norton Sound and beyond because of concerns of population levels. We have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and many other state game agencies within the Pacific Flyway to pursue ongoing recovery efforts.

After decades of restoration work, it would be a step backward to allow a road through important habitat of black brant and other subsistence waterfowl in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Virtually the entire world populations of brant and emperor geese (listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act) depend on the Izembek lagoons complex for building fat reserves during critical times in their migratory cycles. That is why, in 1998, our Waterfowl Conservation Committee passed a resolution opposing the proposed Izembek road, and we unanimously reaffirmed that resolution in March of this year.

Last December, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell upheld a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that a road through the Izembek refuge would harm the refuge and the species it was established to protect -- including subsistence species -- and she ruled that the road could not be built.

Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act sets a priority for subsistence uses of fish and wildlife on federal lands in Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s analysis of the Izembek road project found that the road would have “major effects” on brant, emperor geese and tundra swans. It also found that increased human access, hunting pressure, and disturbance would cause displacement from feeding and/or nesting areas. Because there are other transportation alternatives available to King Cove that would not affect migratory waterfowl, we cannot support the proposed road because of its significant negative effects on waterfowl and other subsistence species.

By rejecting the proposed land exchange and road, Secretary Jewell and the U.S. Department of the Interior fulfilled their legal obligation to protect subsistence and supported years of waterfowl restoration work.

Transportation is a difficulty of village life, and it is a challenge shared by rural villages across Alaska. All of us contend with weather delays, expensive travel and long trips to the city for medical care. King Cove is no exception.

With hard work and open minds, King Cove can find alternative, effective transportation to Cold Bay, and Izembek will continue to provide the necessary resources that help feed and sustain all the villages of western Alaska. This is especially true during this time of taking severe conservation measures on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers to reverse the declining Chinook salmon species, which our people in the YK Delta have relied on as one of our major subsistence food sources.

Myron Naneng is president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, representing 56 Native villages in an area of western Alaska the size of Oregon, and chairman of the AVCP Waterfowl Conservation Committee.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.