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King Cove still waits for a road to save lives

  • Author: Etta Kuzakin
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 22, 2014

It has been exactly one year since Interior Secretary Sally Jewell dashed my hopes and those of my King Cove neighbors by rejecting a proposal to build a life-saving road to connect our isolated community with the all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay.

Since her rejection, there have been 16 emergency medical evacuations from King Cove. Six of those rescues had to be done by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, at taxpayer expense, because weather conditions were so bad that regular flights could not land in King Cove.

Because our community has no hospital or doctor, we must travel 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures, including childbirth. Our local clinic is staffed with heroes, but there is only so much the health providers can do with limited equipment.

King Cove, surrounded by volcanic mountains and water, is cut off from the rest of the world. It is a place of unmatched natural beauty and diversity, but the weather -- fog, high winds and fierce winter squalls -- can easily turn deadly.

I support efforts to protect this land for future generations. My Aleut ancestors have worshiped this land for thousands of years. Conservation is the way of my people. We cared for the land long before the existence of the United States and certainly long before parts of it were dedicated as the Izembek National Wildlife Reserve in 1980.

But the federal government gave no thought to the safety of my people when it designated the traditional land route between King Cove and Cold Bay as a wilderness area and banned all motorized travel. The people were not consulted on how their lives would be affected by losing land access to the all-weather airport built by the U.S. military in Cold Bay.

The impact later became clear -- that people would die because they couldn't reach emergency medical treatment when harsh weather conditions prevented planes from landing at King Cove's much smaller airport or they couldn't cross the bay that separates our communities because of turbulent seas. Still, Secretary Jewell decided a short connector road was not worth the harm it might cause the geese that stop here twice a year during their annual migration route. Jewell's decision, in effect, means that she values the geese over the lives of the people.

I know firsthand the dangers our loved ones face. In April 2013, I went into early labor. Despite my careful planning to move closer to the hospital in Anchorage well ahead of my due date, my baby had plans of her own. The winds that day were ferocious, and I could see as I waited at our clinic that no flights were going to make it into King Cove that day. I was in no condition to attempt crossing the roiling bay by boat. My last hope was for the Coast Guard to send a helicopter from Kodiak for me.

It's not the job of the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue pregnant women, but I thank God every day for their selfless devotion to the people of Alaska and their willingness to put themselves in harm's way to ensure our safety. It's because of the men and women of the Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak that my beautiful daughter, Sunnie Rae, is alive today.

I am reminded of the trials of that day -- and how easily things could have turned out differently -- every time my daughter smiles. Not every story has ended as happily as mine.

In the past year alone, the Coast Guard has had to evacuate seriously ill or injured patients from King Cove six times. Another 10 were medevacked by traditional flights or by fishing boat. I am grateful that all of them made it out and none of our Coast Guard guardians were hurt. But it's only a matter of time before the Alaska Peninsula's notoriously bad weather claims another victim.

Some terrible day in the near future, our luck will turn and all best efforts will not be enough. Someone will die -- a death that could have been prevented but for road access to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

Jewell will likely be sitting safely in her office in Washington, D.C. when it happens. I will be in King Cove. As the president of our tribe, it will be my responsibility to comfort the family of the deceased. Their tears and anguish will be my burden. I will help them pick up the pieces, feed their kids, and help them find a way to carry on.

The hardest part to accept is that it doesn't have to be this way. There's already 50 miles of historic road, built by the military and used regularly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within the Izembek Refuge. All we need is permission to construct a short, single-lane, gravel connector road across approximately 9 miles of the refuge.

Congress gave its approval in 2009. President Obama signed a land exchange including the road into law later that same year. Jewell's veto of the proposal is the one thing standing in the way of increased safety for my people.

The King Cove (Native) Corp. and the state of Alaska have offered to add more than 61,000 acres to the refuge, including more than 40,000 acres of new wilderness, in return for the 206 acres needed for the road. Jewell's rejection of that generous offer and refusal to provide any alternatives has been a heartbreaking lesson in the callousness of a distant government.

In September, Jewell delivered a speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. She praised the designation of federal wildlife refuges for providing "a taste of wilderness, a taste of what this country was before we took over so much of it, what there is at stake and what there is to protect."

I was dumbstruck by the lack of understanding and compassion her words showed for the people who have been cut off from the world by unilateral decisions made thousands of miles away. But then I got angry and resolved to continue to fight to protect my family and my people.

Jewell is the one person who can right this wrong. She must reconsider her rejection of the road and protect the people of King Cove. We do not want to harm the lands we have lived in harmony with since before recorded history. We simply want to know that in an emergency, our loved ones can safely reach the kind of medical care that the rest of America takes for granted every day.

Etta Kuzakin is president of King Cove's Agdaagux Tribe.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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