The Interior Department has approved a land swap deal that will allow construction of a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge between King Cove and Cold Bay, according to local officials. The action effectively overrules wilderness protections that have kept the area off-limits to vehicles for decades.
The land exchange, which has been agreed to but not formally signed, sets in motion a process that would improve King Cove's access to the closest regional airport. The village, with roughly 925 residents, has lobbied federal officials for decades to construct a 12-mile gravel road connecting it to the neighboring town of Cold Bay.
In an interview late Friday, City Administrator Gary Hennigh said residents "are encouraged that this administration has a different attitude about this road, and … that the needs of the people in King Cove can be met. At the same time, the special qualities of the Izembek refuge can continue."
Environmentalists, along with two Democratic administrations, have blocked the road on the grounds that it would bisect a stretch of tundra and lagoons that provide a vital feeding ground for migrating birds as well as habitat for bears, caribou and other species. The refuge was established by President Dwight Eisenhower, and all but 15,000 of its 315,000 acres have been designated as wilderness since 1980. Motorized vehicle access is traditionally prohibited in such areas.
Interior officials did not respond to a request for comment Friday, but Hennigh said Secretary Ryan Zinke and the King Cove Corp.'s president will sign the agreement in Washington sometime in January. The department has declined to publicly discuss the land exchange negotiations, which The Washington Post first reported in October.
Federal, state and local officials have long struggled to address the needs of King Cove, which is located on the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula. The federal government has spent more than $50 million to fund a modern telemedicine clinic and a hovercraft that covered the distance between the village and Cold Bay in 20 minutes. Multiple federal analyses endorsed alternative solutions to the road project — such as a marine ferry to replace the hovercraft residents got rid of several years ago — and suggested poor weather could make the road impassible for stretches in the winter.
Yet King Cove officials, as well as Alaska officials such as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have argued the same poor weather often makes air and boat transport treacherous and warrants construction of a single-lane route through the refuge.
Between 1980 and 1994, 12 people died during aerial medical evacuations en route to the hub airport, though no residents have died during such evacuations since then. Hennigh noted there have been 68 evacuations by air or boat since then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell blocked the road's construction in December 2013.
Murkowski could not be reached for comment Friday.
Local officials estimate 10 to 15 vehicles will travel the road daily, which may include employees coming to work at a seafood cannery in King Cove. Hennigh said the project would have "a minimal impact" on the refuge but provide a critical service for area residents.
"A person is a person, if it's a cannery worker trying to get to King Cove or an Aleut trying to get to either Cold Bay or King Cove," he said, adding that the road would not be used to transport "commercial seafood products" to the airport in Cold Bay. "This will significantly improve the quality of our life and give us access to the outside world."
Conservationists and ecologists caution that the very act of constructing a road could fragment critical habitat for species that need it, especially the waterfowl that undertake an arduous migration along North America's Pacific Coast. In spring and fall, nearly the entire global population of emperor and Pacific black brant geese consume the refuge's eelgrass. In winter, tens of thousands of the threatened Steller's eider sea ducks stay in Izembek and molt.
The 1964 Wilderness Act bars new roads and the use of motorized vehicles in areas designated under the law except in rare instances — such as to provide access for the development of existing mining claims — and there appears to be no precedent for the executive branch's approval in this case.
Randi Spivak, who directs the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email that the advocacy group was prepared to challenge the agreement in federal court if it is finalized. The proposed project, she argued, would likely run afoul of the Wilderness Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
"Bulldozing a road through the heart of the refuge violates federal laws designed to protect Alaska's pristine wild places," Spivak said. "Zinke's backroom deal is an end run around Congress and will destroy world-class wetlands critical to millions of migrating birds, bears and other wildlife. Once it's destroyed, we'll never get it back."
It is unclear how much land the King Cove Corp. will give the federal government in exchange for the land it needs to build through the refuge. Hennigh said he expected the two sides would spend between four and six months appraising different parcels.
Several years ago, the state of Alaska and tribal officials had offered to transfer the deed to tens of thousands of acres in the vicinity as part of any deal. According to documents obtained this fall by The Post, the corporation president had recently identified two parcels of tribal land totaling 2,604 acres along the refuge's southern boundary on Cold Bay as a possible swap for land within Izembek.
The exchange proposal that Jewell rejected, Hennigh said, would have been "an outrageous price" to pay. By contrast, he added, the agreement now close to final will consist of "something that is a rational expectation of the King Cove Corporation shareholders and of all Aleuts."