National News

In Alaska, a Deal Is Made for a Controversial Road Inside a Refuge

Posted January 7, 2018 6:28 p.m. EST
Updated January 7, 2018 6:29 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department is poised to approve a land swap in Alaska that would allow the remote town of King Cove to build a road through the sensitive wetlands of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, state and local officials said Saturday.

The agreement, first reported by The Washington Post, is expected to be signed this month. The King Cove Corp., a tribal organization that manages the area, will exchange approximately 250 to 500 acres of land for the ability to cut an approximately 200-acre strip through the refuge, said Henry Mack, the mayor of King Cove.

The decision by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will effectively overturn a determination made by former President Barack Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell, in 2013. Jewell found that a road would cause irreparable harm to Izembek’s ecology and wildlife, including the grizzly bear, caribou and geese for whom the refuge is a critical habitat.

The community of King Cove, whose population is under 1,000, has been fighting for decades for the right to build a single-lane road through the refuge to the neighboring town of Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport that can provide flights to hospitals in Anchorage.

“It’s awesome,” Mack said. “It was four years ago when Sally Jewell said ‘no way,’ and we never gave up. We keep telling our story, and Secretary Zinke is seeing it the right way, I believe. We just want safe access to the airport.”

Mack recalled staying up all night with a sick grandson a few years ago until the weather improved enough for a plane to pick up the child, then 3, to be hospitalized in Anchorage. Della Trumble, a local resident and spokeswoman for the King CoveCorp., witnessed her daughter’s airplane crash-land at a field in King Cove about four years ago. Her daughter survived, Trumble said, but she doesn’t want other parents to go through that ordeal.

The agreement is another achievement for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who late last year successfully inserted language into the sweeping tax overhaul bill that for the first time in a generation allows oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The road has long been a legislative priority for Murkowski and the Alaska congressional delegation.

The deal is certain to be challenged by environmental groups, which denounced it as unlawful and unnecessary. Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society, said the construction of a road would be disastrous for the wildlife that inhabit the refuge, and the road would be unusable during major storms anyway. She said the Army Corps of Engineers had found a marine ferry option to be more dependable as well as ecologically sound. “There are viable alternatives,” Whittington-Evans said.

Gary Hennigh, the city administrator of King Cove, said the agreement did not define a specific route for the road. He said the road would be a small disruption with only a minimal impact on wildlife.

But Randi Spivak, the public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the refuge is a critical habitat for the world population of black brant geese, which eat the abundant eel grass on the long migration from Southern California. No land exchange can make up for the loss, she said.

“In terms of a land swap, you can’t exchange it acre for acre,” she said. “You can’t manufacture this kind of habitat. You can’t have a sign that says, ‘Hey, birds, fly this way.'”

Critics also cast doubt on the necessity of the project for medical emergencies. Whittington-Evans said the federal government had already spent about $50 million on alternate means of transportation. She and other opponents say the road would chiefly benefit the business operations of King Cove’s primary employer, a Japanese-owned fish cannery.

The Interior Department did not return emails seeking comment Saturday. Hennigh said the agreement would be signed Jan. 22 in Washington.