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Can the isolated Alaska Peninsula town of King Cove get its road under the Trump administration?

King Cove is located on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula in the Aleutians East Borough. It is 18 miles southeast of Cold Bay. (Courtesy Aleutians East Borough)

The message from the Trump administration official was blunt, chastising Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's communications director for sending a press release that revealed new plans to advance a long-sought project: the road from King Cove that would run through a federal wildlife refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

"We still have a ways to go to close this deal, and getting ahead of the public policy process, especially in the front pages of the news, may delay or derail our efforts," wrote Steve Wackowski, senior adviser for Alaska affairs at the Department of the Interior.

The email, sent last month and obtained through a public records request to the governor's office, was the latest shot in the battle over the road, which would connect residents of the isolated fishing village of King Cove to the jet airstrip in nearby Cold Bay.

The decadeslong fight is taking a new turn under the Trump administration, with emotions running so hot that, as Wackowski's email shows, even supporters are fighting with each other over strategy.

Former President Barack Obama's administration vetoed the project in 2013. But Trump's election last year breathed new life into the proposal, and his administration is now working with road backers — including Walker, Alaska's congressional delegation and King Cove residents — to determine how to advance the road in a way that can stand up to an inevitable challenge from environmental groups.

A pair of state geologists has already started a summer road survey, arriving at the route by skiff and traveling it entirely on foot. Their work permit was the subject of Walker's press release, and Wackowski's subsequent email.

Construction, however, could still be years away, if it ever occurs.

Road backers say the 900 people of King Cove urgently need it to guarantee access to lifesaving medical evacuations.

But opponents, including Obama's interior secretary, Sally Jewell, say that whatever benefits would come from the road are too small to offset its potential impacts on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge's globally significant bird populations and other wildlife. The project would cut across a narrow isthmus of land linking King Cove to Cold Bay, which Jewell found could irreversibly damage the federally designated wilderness area.

In the six months since Trump appointed former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as his interior secretary, the two sides have been quietly preparing for their next skirmish — with the message from Wackowski, Zinke's Alaska adviser, showing how carefully the road's backers are trying to avoid tipping their hand. In his email, Wackowski said his agency would "appreciate the professional courtesy of a heads-up" before Walker's office issues any more press releases on issues pending with the Interior Department.

Trump's administration has more than one option to push the road project ahead. It could put its weight behind legislation from the Alaska delegation that's currently working its way through Congress, with a bill from U.S. Rep. Don Young scheduled to hit the House floor Thursday.

If that path appears too tough, the Interior Department could also try to advance the road administratively and without congressional authorization — though that's a move that could be harder to defend in a possible lawsuit from environmental groups, given the extensive analysis that Jewell used to justify her decision.

"The department is considering both options," said Heather Swift, an Interior Department spokeswoman.

Opponents are anxiously waiting to mount their defense. There's not much they can do until the Trump administration announces just how it plans to move forward — but they're prepared to fight if the Interior Department tries to push past the limits of its executive power, said Geoff Haskett, president of the nonprofit National Wildlife Refuge Association and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska office.

"If they try to do some kind of shortcut and it's not legal, I think we and all kinds of groups will be taking it on," he said.

A list of medical evacuations

King Cove residents and their allies have been pushing for decades for a road to connect their village to Cold Bay, where the 10,000-foot runway, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, sits on what was originally a secret World War II base that the military used to defend the Aleutian Islands. Cold Bay now occasionally plays host to transcontinental flights that encounter mechanical problems, and it's also home to a seasonal Coast Guard post.

The town sits on the west side of the water body called Cold Bay. Twenty miles across the water to the southeast, by boat or plane, is King Cove, where 900 people live alongside what the local government says is the largest salmon cannery in North America.

The runways at Cold Bay sit about 20 miles across the bay from King Cove. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The city of King Cove and other road advocates have occasionally cited economic benefits that could come from building the road, from hauling goods like fish. But their core argument is that it would save residents the expense, discomfort and risk of medical evacuations to Cold Bay by plane or boat.

Della Trumble, a King Cove resident who's become the road project's unofficial spokeswoman, says her niece was born on the galley table of a crab boat that was trying to cross the bay in 70-mph winds. Passengers have had to climb a 20-foot ladder, or be hoisted in a winch, to get to the top of Cold Bay's dock, which extends hundreds of feet from shore.

King Cove officials keep a list of the medical evacuations by plane or boat to Cold Bay, an exhaustive catalog of suffering and treatment delays for problems like fractures, heart problems and a fisherman crushed by a 600-pound cod trap. The area's frequent bad weather can make the trip to Cold Bay impossible at times — the local borough says at least 19 people have died because of the road's absence, and in 1980 a medical flight departing King Cove killed four people.

"People put their lives at risk to save other people's lives," Trumble said in a phone interview from the office of King Cove's Alaska Native village corporation, where she's the finance manager.

King Cove has pushed for the 30-mile link to Cold Bay — more than half of which is on existing roads — with help from successive governors and members of Congress. The most recent proposal, advanced through 2009 federal legislation, called for a single gravel lane, about 17 miles of which were through the refuge; it was to be used only for noncommercial purposes.

Four years later, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a 1,000-page environmental assessment, Jewell said no, a decision that U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski decried at the time as "heartless," "horrible" and a "slap in the face" to King Cove residents. Road supporters refer to past few years since Jewell's veto as the "dark ages."

Commercial use of the road?

Jewell, in her decision, acknowledged the "challenges and complexities of life in the remote Alaskan communities of King Cove." But she said she had to evaluate something else too: what she described as the "globally significant landscape that supports an abundance and diversity of wildlife unique to the refuge that years of analysis shows us would be irretrievably damaged."

The refuge is a 500-square-mile patchwork of tundra, streams and lagoons that was originally protected in 1960 as the Izembek Range — named for a surgeon, Karl Izembek, who passed through the area in the 19th century on an around-the-world Russian expedition.

The 1980 enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act gave the refuge its current name and designated 300,000 of its 315,000 acres as wilderness, the highest level of protection for federal land.

Jewell said the planned route for the road — across a narrow strip of land at the center of the refuge, between the Izembek and Kinzarof lagoons — would make wildlife particularly vulnerable to disruption, especially the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that spend time there.

Emperor geese visit the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in September 2016. (Kristine Sowl / USFWS)

Among those species is the emperor goose, which the environmental assessment describes as possibly the rarest goose species in North America. And more than 90 percent of the global population of Pacific black brant gorges on Izembek's eelgrass beds before some of them take off for a nonstop two-day, 3,000-mile flight to Baja, Mexico, in which the birds can burn more than 30 percent of their weight.

More brant have been staying at Izembek for the winter, however, in a trend that some scientists say could be tied to global warming.

"This is not your average area of Alaska — it supports these global concentrations of birds found nowhere else in the world," said Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska.

Road supporters point out that bird hunting is already allowed in the refuge, with Izembek Lagoon a popular destination.

"I think putting values on wildlife, as opposed to human life, is wrong," Trumble said.

But opponents — and Jewell, in her 2013 decision — argue that King Cove residents' benefits from the road would be too small to justify the threat its construction and operation pose to Izembek. The same bad weather that stops flights or boat trips could close the road, too, Jewell wrote.

Critics also argue that commercial use of the road would be inevitable, regardless of initial limits placed on it. They cite a recent letter from Walker to the Trump administration that went off-message by describing the project's purpose as not just ensuring health and safety but also the "movement of goods and people between King Cove and Cold Bay."

King Cove has also already benefited from ample transportation spending in proportion to its size.

The federal government, with a push from the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, in the 1990s earmarked $37.5 million — more than $37,500 for each King Cove resident — for health and safety improvements for the village and borough.

Some of the cash went toward improvements to King Cove's clinic and airport. It also paid for a $9 million hovercraft that was used for evacuations for three years before being shelved, with the Aleutians East Borough saying it was too expensive and unreliable.

Trumble said King Cove's push for the road makes sense because it's much closer to a jet airstrip than other villages that don't have nearby access to a long runway. And Cold Bay's is one of the longest in the state, she said.

'Not just this tiny little refuge'

Road proponents see allies in the Trump administration and especially Zinke, who formed a relationship with Young, Alaska's sole U.S. House member, when the two sat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski pressed Zinke on the project at his nomination hearing in January, when he told her that he can't wait to meet the "great, great people, the 1,000 people of King Cove."

Walker, the governor, has pressed for $10 million for the project in this year's state capital budget, and he's lobbying the Trump administration for an expedited land trade as part of a federal infrastructure program.

The supporters also have help from lobbyists. Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh, the Virginia-based firm that works for King Cove and the Aleutians East Borough, reported $160,000 in lobbying income in 2016 for work that included pushing the road project with Congress and the executive branch. Two of the firm's lobbyists, Steve Silver and Brad Gilman, are former aides to Stevens, the late U.S. senator.

Silver has also represented King Cove in its federal lawsuit challenging Jewell's veto of the road, in which oral arguments on King Cove's appeal are set for next month in Anchorage.

Another attorney working on the case with Silver is Jim Clark, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Frank Murkowski — Lisa Murkowski's father and another road proponent. Clark was once convicted of corruption; he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2008 only to have his case overturned when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowed the relevant law.

The challenge for proponents is to find a path forward for the project that can draw the necessary political support and also survive a potential legal challenge from conservation groups. Those groups have their own lobbyists in Washington, D.C. — the Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, the League of Conservation Voters and the Wilderness Society all disclosed lobbying efforts against the Alaska delegation's pro-road legislation in the first few months of 2017.

Although Young's bill is expected to draw support in the House, pro-road legislation has a tougher path in the Senate, where the pace of work has been slower and Republicans, who are more likely to support the project, hold a narrow majority.

Opponents are waiting to see whether they need to focus their efforts on a fight in Congress, or on a court challenge to an administrative process launched by the Interior Department. While conservation groups value Izembek itself, they also fear that allowing the road's construction could make it easier to weaken protections for other areas, too, said Katie Strong, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm.

"It's not just this tiny little refuge out in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. It's Yosemite. It's Yellowstone. It's Denali National Park. It's all the places we've decided as a nation are special," Strong said. "It threatens all of the wilderness and all the special places we've decided to protect."

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