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Alaskan Outrage As Obama Appointee Rejects Wilderness Road

6 minute read

King Cove is a village of under 1,000 souls, perched on a slender finger of land near the tail of the Alaskan Peninsula. Even for Alaska, this is remote wilderness, ringed by volcanic mountains and forbidding seas. In bad weather, which is much of the time, it is blanketed with fog, engulfed by whiteout snowstorms or lashed with the bitter winds off the strait. King Cove’s residents, some 70% of whom are native Aleuts, endure or embrace its isolation because of the superb commercial fishing, the sense of community and the landscape’s stark beauty. But they have found that the federal government can intrude even here, at the edge of the world.

For about three decades, the village has been fighting to build a new 11-mile, one-lane gravel track connecting King Cove to nearby Cold Bay. Cold Bay is a speck-sized hamlet with little more than a dock, an old Army base, a collection of hunting lodges and an all-weather airport. But the airport is crucial, because the King Cove airstrip—which is short, surrounded by craggy peaks, and inaccessible to night flights—is closed due to bad weather an average of 100 days per year, according to the local flight-service station.

King Cove officials say they desperately need the road so that residents requiring medical treatment can travel quickly to Cold Bay for flights to Anchorage, some 625 miles northeast. Alaska’s Congressional delegation, along with state officials, have been pressing the Department of the Interior to approve the ground link, thereby easing emergency evacuations that can be as hazardous for the rescuers as for people they transport. “This is tough country out here,” says Chris Babcock, the King Cove fire chief. “We don’t have to be putting guys’ lives at risk.”

But on Dec. 23, they got bad news: after a four-year analysis, the Department of the Interior announced it would decline a proposed land swap that would allow the road to be built. A decision released by the department cited the environmental impact on the Izembek national wildlife refuge, a protected habitat for grizzly bears and caribou as well as shorebirds and indigenous water fowl like the Pacific black brant, which rely on the local eelgrass.

“Building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Izembek is an extraordinary place – internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species – and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness.”

The decision incensed local leaders, who say the Department was exhibiting more concern for birds than people. Over the past three decades, at least 19 people have been killed due to the lack of a land route between King Cove and Cold Bay, according to a spokesman for Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. The dangers associated with flying into King Cove for medical emergencies were highlighted on Valentine’s Day, when a Coast Guard helicopter braved 70 m.p.h. winds in a snowy blizzard to ship an elderly woman with heart trouble to Anchorage. “You couldn’t even see the helicopter,” says King Cove mayor Henry Mack. “We just need safe, reliable access to the airport. It’s ridiculous.”

The Interior Department, which affirmed the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision that a road was not the “preferred alternative” to connect the two communities, says the villages can pursue alternative methods of transportation. Among the options: resurrecting a hovercraft that was briefly used to transport residents. Back in 1997, the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican, secured nearly $40 million to upgrade the local King Cove medical clinic and airstrip, as well as construct a strip to the hovercraft terminal. While the craft completed every emergency medical mission it was asked to make, it proved expensive to operate and unreliable in bad weather, locals say. It was shelved in 2010 after three years of operation.

The Obama Administration believes the road would carry a significant financial cost, and environmental groups warn of the impact on prized wildlife. In addition, some believe King Cove is using medical evacuations as a pretext to win more federal dollars for an issue that would improve broader quality of life, even though the thoroughfare would be closed to commercial traffic.

Meanwhile, the fury among local residents shows no sign of abating. “It’s an issue of life and death,” says Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the Agdaagux Tribe. It is also, supporters of the road note, perhaps an issue of hypocrisy: there are already dozens of miles of road in the Izembek refuge, and the area caters to wealthy sportsmen who fly in to hunt some of the very birds the Interior Department says it wants to protect. (Sportsmen are allowed to shoot up to 51 birds per day, including two black brant.)

“Government officials come out here saying they have to speak on behalf of the animals and birds,” says Robert Gould, King Cove’s director of public safety. “But what about the people who lost their lives? They can’t speak either.”

In exchange for the 200 acres required to build the road, the refuge would have received some 56,000 acres of state and tribal land. Though she acknowledged the safety issues associated with the road, Jewell declined the proposal. “While the proposed land exchange would bring many more acres of land into the Refuge System, the analysis indicates that the increased acreage could not compensate for the unique values of existing refuge lands, nor the anticipated effects that the proposed road would have on wildlife, habitat, subsistence resources, and wilderness values of the Refuge,” the Secretary wrote on Dec. 23.

Murkowski, who sponsored a 2009 provision ordering the land exchange, was steamed. “While you chose to deny the surest option to provide safe and reliable emergency medical access for the residents of King Cove – a short, one-lane gravel road that would be used only for non-commercial purposes – you also led us to believe that your decision was not the absolute end of your department’s involvement,” Murkowski wrote to Jewell this week.

To many Alaskans, the decision embodied the frustration with Washington in large swaths of the country, stemming from a sense that the federal government relies on faraway bureaucrats to rule on local issues.

“It’s a disregard for the people of the West,” says Robert Dillon, the communications director for the minority at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Murkowski is the ranking member. “The federal government knows better than the people of Wyoming, or Alaska, and make decisions based on what Washington bureaucrats and environmentalists think. This is just the poster child.”

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com