The King Cove road issue is an interesting mix of political melodrama and public policy. Alaska’s politicians have incorporated the King Cove story in a convenient narrative, and used that narrative to portray a perverted value system in which federal bureaucrats and Outside environmentalists value a few birds more than the health, or even the lives of poor villagers.
Is village public health and safety a manufactured issue? No, but it’s the same issue that faces more than 100 other villages that are both off the road system and without access to an all-weather airport. Few if any of those other communities are fortunate enough to have the economic viability of King Cove, and few have a median household income as high as King Cove’s $54,871. Few of those communities are fortunate enough to have a modern clinic staffed with a federally funded physician’s assistant and a certified nurse practitioner. And fewer still are fortunate enough to have members of the U.S. Senate as capable as Lisa Murkowski and the late Ted Stevens, pumping out press releases on their behalf.
What King Cove has that those other villages lack is a narrative that allows the pro-business, pro-mining, pro-development agenda to be portrayed as concern for the health and safety of downtrodden villagers.
This road passes through a wilderness area. Do we really expect Interior Secretary Jewell to ratify a new congressional strategy that opens the door to any member of Congress adding language to a budget bill demanding the same waiver of protections in other refuges and wilderness areas? Do we really suppose that extractive industries wouldn’t eagerly embrace this opening? Do we really want to establish that kind of precedent?
Public health and safety is not a manufactured issue. Many Alaska villages are losing their kids to suicide, suffering high levels of fetal alcohol syndrome, have failing educational systems, and are being physically destroyed by river and coastal erosion. These are more important issues than King Cove’s desire for a road. Wouldn’t it be nice if the pro-industry politicians -- and, yes, Outside environmentalists -- paid as much attention to these concerns?
Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report, and an economic consultant with offices in Juneau and Bend, Oregon.
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