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Federal opposition to Izembek road rallies Alaskans against Interior nominee Sally Jewell

An aerial view of King Cove. Laurel Andrews photo

The U.S. House has little influence over the confirmation of Cabinet nominees, but that's not stopping Alaska Congressman Don Young from brewing trouble for President Obama's pick to lead the Department of the Interior.

On Thursday, Rep. Young took to the House floor to urge his colleagues in the Senate -- which must confirm Cabinet secretaries -- to put the nomination of former REI chief Sally Jewell on hold until outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approves a federal land exchange to construct a road between King Cove and Cold Bay in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The proposed road connecting King Cove and Cold Bay been a source of contention for years between residents, who say it would save lives, and environmentalists, who say it would damage the ecosystem of the refuge. To allay fears of environmental degradation, a land exchange was proposed that would allow for a 9-mile road through the refuge, comprising about 1,800 acres of federal land, in exchange for the addition of more than 56,000 acres to the refuge. The exchange was approved by Congress as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Package.

On Feb. 5, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided not to take action on the proposed land exchange, preventing the deal from taking place. However, the final decision lies with the soon-departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Interior Department, which manages federal lands, including most of Alaska, more than 60 percent of which is still owned by the federal government.

Last month, Salazar announced his plans to resign. Now, Young is urging him to act before he steps down.

“We had hearings, we had the land transfer, we had everything going to work so these people could be  . . .  safe to go to hospitals, be safe to fly out when the weather was bad. It was an agreement between the State, the Congress and the village of King Cove. But along comes Fish and Wildlife and denies them the trade that has to be necessary for this transportation corridor," Young said in a press release.

“I'm urging my senators to put a hold on a new Secretary of the Interior, so she's not confirmed until this Secretary can in fact sign the law to allow (King Cove) to have safety once and for all."

Environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, responsible for tens of thousands of public comments on the matter, hailed the decision. "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," the group said. "It also would have set a dangerous precedent for the future of wildlife refuge and wilderness area management across the country."

The City of King Cove, the Agdaagux Tribe, the Belkofski Tribal Council, Aleutians East Borough and State of Alaska have pushed for road access for years, a move they say would save lives of people who need to be medevaced out of Cold Bay. Right now the only way to access Cold Bay from King Cove is by small plane, a method of transport that can prove unreliable in treacherous weather.

Hovercraft service was available between King Cove and Cold Bay for years, but it was suspended in 2011, once again leaving residents to rely solely on airplanes. The Aleutians East Borough says that planes in the villages are grounded or delayed half the time. The 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.

Young penned an article for the website Politico on the subject, bashing Fish and Wildlife for siding with the “radical environmental community," adding, "in 40 years as Alaska’s lone representative in the House, I have never seen the federal government turn its back on the health and safety of its residents in such a shameful manner."

Young appears to have found an ally in Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Later Thursday, Begich promised to press the matter during Jewell's confirmation hearings:

I am troubled that this decision is part of a continuing trend to ignore the needs of Americans who live in the West, especially in some of the most remote parts of our nation such as Alaska. Despite repeated attempts, the residents of King Cove were denied an opportunity to meet face-to-face with Secretary Salazar to make their case. Yet these Americans deserve the same opportunities for basic health care and public safety as those who live in Chicago or elsewhere in our country.

How she addresses this troubling trend will be at the top of my list when I consider the confirmation of Interior Secretary-designee Sally Jewell. The Department of the Interior has more responsibility in my state than any other federal agency.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com