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My Turn: The refuge and the road

Posted: October 4, 2013 - 8:11am

Every spring and autumn, the bar-tailed godwit flies more than 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Alaska, making no stops. It doesn’t eat or drink. It doesn’t complain. It doesn’t always survive. It makes the epic journey in eight to nine days, and arrives exhausted.

According to biologists who track bird migration using satellite tags, it’s the longest nonstop bird migration ever measured.

Since the mid-1990s, the numbers of bar-tailed godwits has fallen by half. That decline could worsen, along with the status of other species of migratory birds, if the people of King Cove get what they want: a road connecting their town to Cold Bay in remote western Alaska. This is a road that would run through the biological heart of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The issue begs the answers to two questions: When does a refuge stop being a refuge? And does the world really need another road?

More than 80 percent of Earth’s surface has already been manipulated by humans — most of that in the past 200 years. In his best-selling book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben begins with two observations. First, we tell time badly: “We’re used to thinking of the Earth as changing with infinite slowness, but that in fact it is now speeding up, changing in rapid, dangerous, and profound ways as a result of our alterations.” And second, “our sense of scale is awry … we’re used to thinking of people as small and world as large, but that in our lifetimes the opposite has become the truth.”

Of course, remote western Alaska is still very much a big place, often beset by inclement weather. As such, the people of King Cove have wanted this road for many years. It’s for safety, they say. For convenience. In truth, Alaskans love roads because they love their trucks. And they would love an easier way to transport commercially caught fish to market.

In 1998, the Association of Village Council Presidents, representing 56 Native villages in western Alaska, passed a resolution opposing a congressional bill to build the road, citing concerns regarding critical habitat for waterfowl. That same year, in lieu of approving the road, Congress appropriated $37.5 million to satisfy the safety needs of the people of King Cove. The money was spent on a new hovercraft (to travel safely and quickly between the two towns) and a modern terminal, and to improve an airstrip and a health clinic.

Not good enough, said the people of King Cove. They don’t care about the 70,000 letters received by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 opposing the road.

Lisa Murkowski, senior senator of Alaska, recently accompanied the new Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, as she toured Alaska and listened to people’s concerns. Murkowski once threatened to block Jewell’s confirmation as the new secretary unless Jewell approved building the road the Department of the Interior has already stated would cause “irreparable harm to habitat and the species that the wildlife refuge was established to protect.”

Years ago, when Cape Cod had more birds than it does today, author Henry Beston lived there and wrote, “We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Of course Lisa Murkowski doesn’t read Henry Beston. Her primary objective is to listen to people with trucks, to retain power and stay in office.

If only birds could vote.

• Kim Heacox is the author of the Alaska memoir, The Only Kayak, and the forthcoming biography, John Muir and The Ice That Started a Fire.

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