While the Aleutians East Borough tries again to sell a mothballed hovercraft, a court fight continues over whether a one-lane road through about 10 miles of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge or a boat trip is the best way to connect the remote towns of King Cove and Cold Bay, 600 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The access battle has become one of the perennial flashpoints between the state and the federal government and it threatens to remain so. It's a clash of competing interests and priorities, marked by bitter denunciations of federal stubbornness on one hand and claims on the other that state officials have dismissed alternatives and ignored the $37.5 million spent by the federal government so far to solve this problem.
About $9 million of the federal money went into the 49-passenger hovercraft designed in England and built in Seattle. Much of the rest went to build a road outside the refuge to encourage the hovercraft connection.
Built to carry an ambulance and navigate 6-foot seas, the hovercraft transported patients in 22 medical evacuations between 2007 and 2010, but the borough said it could not afford to keep it running. King Cove, with a population of about 1,000, and Cold Bay, with a population of about 100, had little revenue to support the hovercraft and it could not operate about 30 percent of the time because of heavy seas, the borough said.
The borough put the hovercraft up for sale a year ago, but no one offered the minimum $6 million bid. It cut the price and agreed to a tentative $4.5 million sale early this year with Cruz Marine, but that plan fell through, said borough manager Rick Gifford. The hovercraft remains in storage in Akutan, awaiting a buyer.
In the meantime, the arguments continue about the difficulty of getting from King Cove to Cold Bay. There are heart-wrenching tales about medical evacuation flights and questions about what impact a road would have on millions of migratory waterfowl, as the Izembek refuge is one of the most important habitats for migratory birds. The notion that the noncommercial use of the road would be strictly enforced prompts widespread skepticism among environmental critics, as does the claim that it has nothing to do with the economic opportunities that could come with getting fish to the Cold Bay airport.
Another factor that intensifies the debate is the assertion that the one-lane road would set a precedent that could weaken long-established national rules about wilderness protection. Izembek is the smallest wildlife refuge in Alaska, with all but 15,000 acres of its 315,000 acres designated as wilderness.
Road opponents have regularly pointed out over the years that one of the first campaigns for building the road said it would improve the economics of the area and allow seafood to be trucked to the Cold Bay airport. Road supporters have countered that the road would be for "non-commercial" uses and that the exchange of 206 acres of federal wilderness for 56,393 acres of state and Alaska Native land would greatly enhance the wilderness balance.
Road opponents agree that the land exchange numbers are heavily weighted, but that the 206 acres are more important because they are already in an existing wilderness. "To suggest the Izembek Refuge is the same as other lands, acre for acre, is inaccurate," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a February hearing.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was not acre-per-acre but at an exchange rate of 300 to one. "The easiest, most direct way to help save these lives would be this one-lane, gravel, non-commercial use, 10-mile road that you continue to just ignore," Murkowski said.
The chapter now unfolding before federal Judge H. Russel Holland deals with a narrow question about whether the U.S. Interior Department violated federal laws in its preparation of an environmental impact statement used to justify a rejection of the road plan in 2013. In December, Holland turned back four arguments for the road put forward by King Cove, Native groups and the state.
The pro-road group says that the environmental review should have included a full analysis of the viability of using a yet-to-be-built landing craft as an alternative means of transportation between the two towns. The anti-road forces, mainly the Interior Department and environmental groups, defend the impact statement as thorough and complete. Both sides have asked for summary judgment from Holland, who has yet to decide.
The village of King Cove, along with Native tribes and the state, wants the court to approve the land exchange, allowing a road to be built on a corridor through a wilderness area. The state argument is that it is a matter of life and safety and that the one-lane gravel road would be used only for noncommercial purposes, allowing King Cove residents to get to Cold Bay most of the year, especially when weather grounds air traffic. Cold Bay has a 10,000-foot runway, capable of handling any aircraft, while King Cove is often socked in.
A 2009 federal law called for the land exchange, subject to an environmental impact statement and a public interest determination. The law said the road would be "primarily for health and safety purposes."
By proposing the road, "it is reasonable to assume that Congress had determined that such a road could be constructed in the wilderness refuge, just as they are in wildlife refuges around the country," King Cove and the state contended. But the law also required a positive finding by the Interior Department.
In deciding against the land exchange proposed by Congress, the Interior Department never offered a "rational explanation" of how a hypothetical landing craft was a "viable alternative to a road for emergency medical evacuations" and did not show the landing craft as a stand-alone alternative in the impact statement, King Cove and the state said.
The federal government says Secretary Jewell "took a hard look at the impacts of each alternative," but the department did not have to include the landing craft as a stand-alone alternative. The department has made frequent use of a letter written by the borough in 2010 to the Army Corps of Engineers. The borough said that if a road did not win approval, a proposed 59-foot landing craft might prove more feasible than a hovercraft or ferry.
The borough said the assumptions made about the safety, reliability and affordability of the hypothetical landing craft were never tested in the environmental impact statement. It also said the letter only mentioned that the landing craft was an option and included a conceptual drawing.
"The secretary's conclusion that the landing craft in the 'no action' alternative was 'viable' was arbitrary and capricious because it was contrary to the evidence," the road proponents said.
"Given the wind, wave and storm conditions of Cold Bay and the Pacific Ocean it is obvious on its face that a hypothetical, untested landing craft traversing 14 miles (of) open ocean subject to the wind, wave and storm conditions of Cold Bay would not be 'safe or reliable' in moving medivacs from King Cove to Cold Bay 24/7," they said.
Jewell has said a road would cause "irreversible damage not only to the refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it." In the February hearing, Murkowski had sharp questions for Jewell, who did not know how many medical evacuations have taken place since December 2013 when Jewell opposed the land exchange and the road. Murkowski said there have been 23 as of March 8.
Jewell mentioned a helicopter connection as a possible solution, which Murkowski said was unworkable and impractical. The secretary also brought up boat traffic. "We are willing to work with the community on other water-based transportation methods to cover that six miles from the end of that road to Cold Bay," she said.
Opposition to the road, which was as intense during the Clinton administration as during the Obama administration, is due in part to the precedent it would set, according to Interior officials and environmental groups. Nowhere else, they say, has property officially preserved as wilderness been redesignated to allow construction of a new road. Wilderness is the most restrictive designation, set aside for places in which the evidence of humans is kept to a minimum.
"The key issue here is that no road has ever been built in congressionally designated wilderness, and no public lands have been stripped of wilderness status for the purpose of building a road. The claim that an old trail makes it legal to build a new road through wilderness is simply false," said Tim Woody, Alaska communications manager of the Wilderness Society. He said while there are 40 miles of old trails within the designated Izembek wilderness area, they are not used or maintained as roads.
The Obama administration and environmental groups say there are alternatives to a road that can help King Cove, while the congressional delegation says nothing but a road will suffice.
Complicating this issue is that the Congress and the federal government did deal with the matter during the Clinton administration. The Senate approved a measure in 1998 calling for a land exchange that would have allowed road construction, but the prospect of a Clinton veto prompted the late Sen. Ted Stevens to change tactics.
At that time, Stevens exercised enormous control over federal spending as chairman of the appropriations committee. He inserted nearly $38 million in the budget, working out a deal with the White House that would provide road and marine access in a manner that avoided the refuge boundaries, a decision that continues to provide ammunition for the anti-road forces 17 years later.
"I don't like to be in a position of defending $37.75 million to be spent," Stevens told a reporter at the time. "But if that's what it takes to justify our people, that's the way it has to be."
Sen. Frank Murkowski opposed the deal worked out by Stevens, which evolved into a plan for a road part of the way and a boat crossing. At the time, he said a hovercraft would not be a viable solution and it would be too costly.
"I don't think we resolved Izembek," he told a reporter later. He made the Izembek road a priority, just as Lisa Murkowski has. Their comments about the need and the situation have struck the same tone. "This is a matter of life and death for nearly 1,000 Alaskans and I ask that you begin to treat it accordingly," Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote to Jewell last July.
"There is no more compelling need for access in Alaska than in King Cove and this administration has done all it can to prevent this," Sen. Frank Murkowski told the Senate in 1998. "Eleven of my constituents have died. The reason they are told they cannot have a 20-foot wide dirt road access to a good all-weather airport is because the Fish and Wildlife Service has concerns about potential harm to eel grass and other habitat. The position you have taken on this issue is unconscionable."
During that debate, some critics, notably Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers, pointed to economics as the prime reason for the road campaign, a claim rejected by Murkowski. King Cove is home to a Peter Pan processing facility with the largest salmon canning capacity of any plant in Alaska, according to Peter Pan Seafoods. Bumpers and others mentioned a state study that said a road to Cold Bay could make air shipments of fish more economic from the area.
Frank Murkowski said he was never lobbied by fishing interests and rejected the claim that it was a motivating factor for the project. But the argument has come up repeatedly over the years that fish sales, not medical flights, are a motivating factor for backers of the land exchange and the road. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year that "despite pledges and promises to the contrary, the real purpose for building the road is the same as it ever was: moving fish and workers to and from King Cove's canneries."
Babbitt brought up the $37.75 million appropriated under the deal he helped negotiate with Stevens, saying, "U.S. taxpayers have already accommodated alternative solutions to King Cove's concerns about medical emergencies, with the clear understanding that the road would therefore not be built."