Under questioning from Sen. Murkowski, Interior Secretary Haaland says she is ‘committed to a solution’ on King Cove road

WASHINGTON — After withdrawing a land exchange this month intended to facilitate a road out of King Cove, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski at a Wednesday Senate hearing she is “committed to a solution” on the issue. Murkowski said afterward she was unsatisfied with Haaland’s responses.

The land exchange, authorized under President Donald Trump, was meant to allow construction of a road connecting King Cove to a Cold Bay runway through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. King Cove residents and advocates say the road would provide access to reach emergency medical care.

On Wednesday, Haaland said the swap that the Interior Department withdrew was “flawed,” and rather than stick out a legal battle, the agency will review “a better solution” with a potentially faster timeframe.

“I really want to find a solution for the people of King Cove so that they don’t have to worry about getting the medical care that they need,” Haaland said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s ruling in favor of the exchange in November, siding with environmental groups, and ordered a rehearing by a larger panel of judges. Opponents of the swap, like the Wilderness Society, have argued a land exchange would threaten wildlife and that non-road alternatives could meet King Cove’s transportation needs.

Haaland’s withdrawal frustrated the Alaska congressional delegation, including Republicans Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, who said the decision causes unnecessary delays for a road.

Haaland traveled to King Cove last year and met with residents to discuss an access road. She said her visit resonates with her today.


“We want to make sure that we are informing them every step of this way,” Haaland said to Murkowski. “And so I just want to let you know that I am committed to a solution there.”

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Murkowski followed up, asking if Haaland is “committed to a land exchange that will allow for the 10-mile, one-lane gravel non-commercial use road that will allow the people of King Cove to gain access to transportation to take them to the public health facilities that they need?”

Haaland said “all of these things are pre-decisional” and that she does not want to “cause any part of this to fail on my part.”

“I just want to assure you that we’re committed to a viable solution for the people, and we will keep them informed,” Haaland said.

Murkowski said after the hearing that she was not satisfied with Haaland’s answers regarding King Cove, and she wanted to hear more of the secretary’s personal commitment to seeking a road.

“I asked very directly on King Cove if she could commit to land exchange and to the road. And she did not commit in language that gives me the comfort that I’m seeking,” Murkowski said in an interview.

“I do recognize that she is limited as a secretary because she will be the one making the decision that she cannot do something pre-decisional,” Murkowski added. “But I’m also very concerned that for as much heart as the secretary has stated she has for the people of King Cove and a desire to help find a solution, that she will be rolled by this administration.”

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, now a Montana Republican representative, also pressed Haaland about King Cove at a House of Representatives hearing Tuesday. As Interior Secretary, Zinke signed an earlier land swap deal for King Cove under Trump; however, a federal judge rejected that plan in 2019.

Haaland told Zinke that the Interior Department is working with the King Cove to ensure residents have access to health care. She said later that two “high-level” Interior Department staffers visited King Cove to discuss the road this week.

Murkowski said Wednesday that those staffers were Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau and Raina Thiele, the department’s senior adviser for Alaska affairs and strategic priorities.

Murkowski at Wednesday’s hearing also raised concerns about the Interior Department’s capacity to manage a land allotment program through which Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans can select tracts of land from nearly 30 million eligible acres in Alaska. The program expires at the end of 2025.

“We recognize that some lands were not included in the law,” Haaland said. “So it’s unfortunate for those veterans who want lands in areas where they weren’t included.”

Murkowski said Interior should make more lands accessible closer to where Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans are currently living in the state.

“When you are in a state that is one-fifth the size the United States of America and you tell a Native veteran in Hoonah that they’re able to select lands up in the Interior, it may as well be telling them they can select lands in Iceland,” Murkowski said. “It’s just not feasible and not possible.”

Haaland also said the department has received 266 Alaska Native Vietnam War veteran land allotment applications but didn’t have the correct contact information to reach all of them. Haaland said the Interior Department is working with the Veterans Affairs Department to resolve the issue.

Murkowski asked Haaland to keep her “foot on the gas” on the issue because “these honored veterans are passing every day.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a land exchange intended to enable construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The 9th Circuit ordered a rehearing on the issue but has not made a decision on the case.

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Riley Rogerson

Riley Rogerson is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C., and is a fellow with Report for America. Contact her at rrogerson@adn.com.