WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski went for the heartstrings Thursday in an effort to garner attention in Washington, D.C., for her long-running fight with the federal government over a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect the remote towns of King Cove and Cold Bay.
A slew of Alaskans advocating for the road traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with lawmakers and testify before Murkowski's Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, arguing the Department of the Interior's refusal to allow the road unnecessarily costs human lives.
Murkowski and King Cove road advocates held a hearing, gathered reporters for a press conference in the Senate and used some technological tricks to get their argument in front of federal employees, in hopes of keeping the fight at the forefront in Washington, D.C.
If all else fails, Rep. Don Young said he might just go out there and build it himself.
"I'm to a point that I think if there isn't any action taken, you may see a congressman down in King Cove … I may build the damn road. And then what are they gonna do, bring in the Marines, the marshals?" Young said Thursday afternoon, speaking in a hushed tone.
"I just still think this is such a stupid issue. I mean, I can't understand the Secretary of Interior. When you think about lives that can be lost -- for what? All the science tells us … it won't bother the birds."
Ads targeted to Interior officials
The Interior Department and environmental groups say building the 11-mile road would endanger a globally important, protected habitat for the Pacific brant and emperor geese, among other wildlife, and other reasonable emergency transportation options are available.
"Any attempt to de-designate wilderness and build a road through its heart is irresponsible when other transportation alternatives exist," said David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
Six Alaska witnesses -- five in favor of the road -- testified before Murkowski's Senate committee Thursday. There, Murkowski, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and others teared up as they spoke passionately about the danger to King Cove residents who must often wait for the weather to clear for medical evacuations. Mallott called it "a travesty in public policy."
Meanwhile, Murkowski's re-election campaign posted an advertisement on Facebook urging action on King Cove that was geotargeted toward Interior Department officials doing lunchtime browsing. As of 4 p.m. in Washington, D.C., the video appeared in newsfeeds 7,000 times at Interior Department headquarters, and Facebookers clicked on the video to watch it 2,402 times, according to Murkowski's campaign.
The video compares the reaction time of emergency responders in King County, Washington -- Jewell's hometown -- with King Cove, where emergency response can take hours, depending on the weather.
Murkowski and Young have chanted the King Cove mantra -- "11-mile, one-lane gravel road" -- over and over in Congress, arguing the federal government is refusing reason and gambling with Alaskan lives. "I can say it in my sleep," Murkowski said Thursday, arguing that "virtually any other community in America" would build a road if faced with King Cove's conditions.
Those opposed to the road say there are alternatives, but the town won't consider them. And they argue the road would be more harmful than proponents are letting on, traversing an untouched isthmus and disturbing the swans, caribou and brown bears that live there, in addition to the geese that make a yearly stopover in the refuge.
Building a road could result in a dwindling population of fowl hunted in the refuge, causing conflict between subsistence and sport hunters that has proved controversial in other parts of the state, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. Whittington-Evans testified at the hearing Thursday morning.
"Izembek is an irreplaceable, globally important area for many hundreds of thousands of migratory birds," said Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska.
42 medevacs from King Cove
But those testifying Thursday made clear there is plenty of conflict already in King Cove. Several witnesses choked up as they spoke of plane crashes in the village and sick residents who didn't make it out in time.
Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the Agdaagux Tribal Council and King Cove Corp., and Gary Hennigh, the city administrator, have each been to to Washington, D.C., about 25 times to advocate for the road, they said earlier this week. The King Cove City Council first passed a resolution calling for a road to Cold Bay in 1976.
Trumble, Hennigh and Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack carried binders full of maps and photos to meetings with mostly Democratic senators, hoping to convince them if anything is hurting the Kinzoro Lagoon, where the geese land each August, it is the hunters allowed there by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"I know what an outboard motor does to an eelgrass bed," Mack said. Mack remembers when the U.S. military set up in Cold Bay during World War II, building a series of roads in what is now a refuge, along with the second-largest airport runway in the state.
And then, decades ago, the area was declared wilderness, a move many felt discounted the lives of people who had lived there for thousands of years, Hennigh said.
When the late Sen. Ted Stevens still held the purse strings in Congress, King Cove did try an alternative to the road, spending millions of federal dollars on a hovercraft and on a road leading up to the refuge. The hovercraft plan was later abandoned. King Cove officials said it was unreliable in bad weather and too expensive, costing around $1 million a year to maintain.
In 2007, Interior officials struck a deal with the congressional delegation, the city and the state -- a land trade that would net the federal government 61,000 new acres of protected land in exchange for the 206 acres needed to build the gravel road to King Cove.
But environmentalists worry the road would "set a dangerous precedent" for refuges across the country, said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
To that end, on Dec. 23, 2013, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called Murkowski to tell her the answer was "no."
Since then, Murkowski has kept a running tally of the medevacs out of King Cove (42) and regularly raised the issue in the Senate, on the floor, in committees, and at home.
Sen. Dan Sullivan said he recently spoke to Coast Guard officials in Kodiak, who handle some of the medevacs out of King Cove. "They are frustrated," he said. "These are dangerous missions."
Interior not budging; Murkowski 'persistent'
Murkowski was vague on her plans going forward, but said she plans to be "persistent."
This week's slew of events and ads are the "educational" arm of her plan, which may include legislative action or more pressure on the Interior Department.
And "I will just point out that Secretary Jewell will not be the Secretary of the Interior for long," Murkowski said.
"Bingo," Sullivan piped in, adding a "new secretary of Interior has to get through a confirmation." Lawmakers often use the confirmation process to lean on agencies, holding up nominations while they hash out behind-the-scenes deals. If the Republican party holds the Senate majority in 2017, Murkowski will lead the committee in charge of vetting and confirming the next Interior chief.
For now, the current secretary isn't budging.
Jewell "stands by her decision against building a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge," said Interior spokesperson Amanda DeGroff. "The Secretary recognizes that King Cove, like many rural communities throughout the State of Alaska, is faced with health and human safety challenges," DeGroff said.
Jewell remains willing to work with the town on alternative options, as detailed in a report completed last summer, DeGroff said.
King Cove leaders say those alternatives -- an ice-capable boat, a new airport and a helicopter -- are insufficient. Unique weather conditions in King Cove take the airport there out of commission 100 days a year, compared to just 10 in Cold Bay.