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Feds reject proposed road to King Cove through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

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

Alaska legislators expressed frustration on Tuesday regarding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to take action on a proposed land exchange that would permit the construction of a road between King Cove and Cold Bay through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The road has for years been a source of contention between residents of the remote Alaskan village who say it would save lives and environmentalists who say it would damage the ecosystem.

The proposed road exchange would have increased the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 56,000 acres in return for around 200 acres of federal land to construct a one-lane gravel road through the refuge.

Fish and Wildlife Service’s final Environmental Impact Statement listed five options for the road proposal and their environmental impact, including one titled “no action,” meaning that the road exchange would not take place. They chose “no action.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife received more than 72,000 public comments regarding the road proposal, 58,000 of which came from the Washington-based group Defenders of Wildlife, KUCB reports.

"The proposed road would have significantly damaged an ecologically sensitive and critical part of the refuge that migratory species like the Pacific Black Brant depend upon," Defenders of Wildlife said in a press release. "It also would have set a dangerous precedent for the future of wildlife refuge and wilderness area management across the country."

But residents of King Cove and Alaska officials decried the decision.

The City of King Cove, the Agdaagux Tribe, the Belkofski Tribal Council, Aleutians East Borough and State of Alaska have pushed for the road access for years, a move they say would save lives of people needing to be medevacked out of Cold Bay. Right now the only way to access Cold Bay from King Cove is by small plane. While hovercraft service was available between the villages for several years, it was suspended in 2011, once again leaving residents to rely solely on air travel in an area plagued by treacherous weather. The Aleutians East Borough says that planes in the villages are grounded or delayed 50 percent of the time.

The Aleutians East Borough also says that 11 people have died during unsuccessful medevacs and other plane trips to or from King Cove during the last 40 years.

"I cannot fathom why the Fish and Wildlife Service prioritized a perceived risk to birds over an existing threat to human life," Gov. Sean Parnell said in a press release.

Don Young called the decision "shameful."

"Today’s decision is a betrayal of the residents of King Cove, and further demonstrates how beholden this Administration is to environmental extremists," Young said in a press release. "How many King Cove residents must perish due to a lack of immediate medical attention for the Department of the Interior to allow this land exchange?"

The decision comes four years after Congress passed the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Land Exchange Act as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Package. But the final decision lies with the soon-departing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

"This will likely be one of his final actions as secretary, and I hope he gives the tremendous impact of this issue thoughtful reflection," Young said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com