WASHINGTON — The Interior Department has taken a formal step toward reversing the Obama administration's refusal to allow a road through the Izembek Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Alaska, connecting the towns of King Cove and Cold Bay.
The Interior Department this week issued a permit allowing the state transportation department "to survey the area for … the best place to begin construction," Gov. Bill Walker's office announced.
The governor received a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke saying that the federal government had granted the state permission to begin looking for the "least impactful route between King Cove and Cold Bay," Walker said.
The move is only a procedural step forward but a symbolic turnabout for a fight that the 800 residents of King Cove have been waging for decades. They say a 10-mile gravel road is urgently needed for medical evacuations.
King Cove is on the Alaska Peninsula between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, separated from Cold Bay by the Izembek refuge, a key gathering point for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. Winds and mountains make flying into King Cove dangerous during much of the year. But nearby Cold Bay has one of the longest runways in the state, built by the military during World War II.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, fought doggedly with the Interior Department over the Obama administration's refusal to grant permission for the road. Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited King Cove in 2013 and ultimately decided that a road would do irreversible damage to the refuge.
The state plans to use an environmental review completed in 2013 to identify the "least impactful route" through the refuge. The survey should be completed by mid-July, according to the governor's office.
There are already miles of roads through the refuge, where hunting is allowed. But environmentalists have argued that a new road would have to go through ecologically sensitive areas and could harm one of the world's premier migratory bird habitats.
"For far too long, King Cove residents suffering from medical emergencies have had to brave harsh elements just to get health care. They travel by boat or helicopter — often in inclement weather — to access the Cold Bay airport in order to be medevaced out," Walker said in a statement.
The Interior Department's move came a day before House Natural Resources Committee moved a bill authored by Alaska Rep. Don Young to authorize a land exchange granting King Cove the land needed to build the road. The bill would still need to pass the full House and the Senate.