On Friday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay to hear from locals in person about why they need the proposed road connecting the two villages.
"All we can do is remain hopeful," said Della Trumble, a spokeswoman for the Agdaagux Tribal Council and the King Cove Corporation, from King Cove on Monday.
Born and raised in King Cove, Trumble said she is one of many who have been advocating for the road for 30 years.
"(Jewell) made it very clear that she has a tough decision," Trumble said. "I believe she walked away with a clearer understanding of the impact of not having reliable transportation."
The proposed route, a single-lane gravel road stretching through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, would offer King Cove residents a safer alternative than traveling by water to get to Cold Bay and the airport there.
Jewell and Murkowski spent several hours in King Cove, where they visited the school, the King Cove Clinic, and attended a public forum.
"My job is full of difficult decisions," Jewell said. "Sometimes, government regulations don't make the course of action easy, and that's what I'm facing in this decision. I need to study all of these things and go over all of the material before I make a decision. You have my commitment that I take this seriously, and I've listened very carefully to what you've said."
Jewell will now take all the testimony to make a final decision on whether or not the stretch to the neighboring village of Cold Bay, and access to the all-weather airport there, will get the nod. No time frame was given on when she make her decision, Trumble said.
"She talked with the students at the school and heard some very heartfelt testimonies from locals whose lives have been impacted, even just in the last few months," she said.
Testimonies such as that of a King Cove woman who had to be medevaced to Anchorage after going into kidney failure just afew weeks ago, Trumble recalled. And if the weather hadn't allowed for the emergency airlift, she would have died, Trumble added.
Jewell also heard from Cameron Spivey, a nurse practitioner who worked at the clinic for three years. Spivey recalled one episode where she worked for eight-hours to keep a five-month-old baby alive while waiting for a medevac flight to Anchorage in stormy weather.
Though the community remains hopeful after Jewell's visit, they have been through this waiting game before.
"It's been a long fight and a tough fight," Trumble said.
Jewell and Murkowski also attended a public forum in Cold Bay on Friday and flew over the protected land where the proposed road would go.
Early this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service nixed the idea of the suggested land exchange between the state and federal government that would allow the road to be built because of environmental impacts to the refuge. A month later, however, the Department of the Interior announced it was still entertaining the idea. The Secretary has the final say in determining whether access to a small single-lane gravel road corridor (206 acres) through the Izembek
National Wildlife Refuge would be in the public interest. As part of the exchange, the federal government would get 56,000 acres of land from the State of Alaska and the King Cove Native Corporation.
"There are laws, and we understand that, but we also understand that any decision can be changed in Congress," said Trumble.
In June, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn made the trek to King Cove to hear from locals and make an assessment of the need for the road. He relayed his findings to Jewell before her visit, Trumble said.
So far there are 17 miles of road out of King Cove and two miles on Cold Bay end, according to Trumble. The proposed eight-mile stretch in between would connect those paths.
"It's just time to make it right and move forward," Trumble said. "It's an issue that will never go away as long as we don't have the road."
While Jewell and Murkowski didn't hear any opposition first hand while in the communities on Friday, written testimony against the project was also presented, Trumble said.
Those opposed to the road project say the disruption of the refuge is not worth the convenience of a road, and encourage marine travel instead. But many agree that travel by boat can be treacherous and often impossible in inclement weather.
"After hearing testimony from residents (earlier this summer), Assistant Secretary Washburn told us he's confi dent the road would be much safer in those times when it's not safe to travel by sea or air," said Aleutians East Borough mayor Stanley Mack in a release. "He also said he would tell Secretary Jewell that it shouldn't be a matter of luck as to whether a medevac patient can get to the hospital or not."
Washburn's role during his visit in June was to evaluate the trust responsibility the federal government has to the local Native people. He was also assigned the task of assessing the medical evacuation benefits from the proposed road.And Washburn saw what the weather in that region is capable of first hand.
"Rapidly changing weather conditions, heavy fog and rough seas during Washburn's visit forced him to take a boat back to Cold Bay," read a release from the village of King Cove. Once in Cold Bay, he had to climb the same 20-foot ladder at the dock that many medical evacuees have to ascend, sometimes inside a crab pot when they are too sick to climb.
In a letter sent to Jewell prior to Friday's visit, Governor Sean Parnell urged her to approve the construction and to take action swiftly.
"There is no reason for the federal government to continue endangering the lives of King Cove residents needing emergency medical treatment and brave medical personnel trying to save lives, and forcing United States Coast Guard responders to help because there is no road," Parnell said. "While I appreciate Secretary Jewell taking the time to meet personally with residents, further delay in approving this road will only increase the chances of serious health risks to King Cove residents."
"Birds are important, but so are the lives of our people," added Jim Kenezuroff, president of the Native Village of Belkofski in a release. "It's imperative that Jewell understand that we will continue to be good stewards of the land, just as we have been for thousands of years while living in this area."
This article originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.