Just before Christmas, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a land exchange that would have permitted construction of a road between the remote communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.
The road would cross the fragile isthmus of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for the purpose of giving King Cove residents emergency access to the Cold Bay airport. Her decision set off a predictable rage by politicians across the state, but like so many environmental battles, the arguments from both sides may be more exaggeration than substance.
King Cove officials claim that the proposed single lane road is necessary because inclement weather frequently makes their airport unsafe for landings, even in an emergency. It’s not uncommon for the airport to be closed for days. So rather than waiting for the weather to improve, residents would have the option of driving 30 miles to Cold Bay’s more reliable airport. From there they could be flown to a hospital in Anchorage.
Now let’s look at Gov. Sean Parnell’s official reaction. He calls the project a “matter of life or death for Alaskans” and accuses the federal government of denying King Cove residents access to emergency medical treatment. This is the same governor who refused to accept Medicaid expansion provisions of the Affordable Care Act so that more than 40,000 low-income residents across the state could afford health care.
But dismissing Parnell’s rant as partisan hypocrisy doesn’t mean that the emergency medical situations in King Cove aren’t real. The main point is that it’s an in-kind response to the trademark hyperbole long practiced by environmentalists.
First though, let’s consider some of the facts they’ve raised. For instance, award-winning writer and conservationist Kim Heacox claims the main reason King Cove wants to build the road is that it would be more economical to transport fish from the Peter Pan Seafood processing plant to the market via the Cold Bay airport. That’s well documented in a National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) white paper titled “Alaska’s Red Herring Highway.” However, even if that was the original objective for the road, it’s not now. By law it would be closed to commercial use. But the NWRA, along with 10 other environmental groups, still filed objections, citing how the Dalton Highway evolved from a limited-access haul road to having its use unrestricted.
In an Empire My Turn published Oct. 4, 2013, Heacox rhetorically asks: “When does a refuge stop being a refuge?” Has he ever been to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex? Like many refuges down south, it’s got plenty of roads traversing the nearby private property, which carves it into more than a dozen relatively small plots of land, all within easy driving distance of a few million people.
So how would a narrow, single lane road on the sparsely populated tail of the Alaska Peninsula cause “irreparable damage to important fish, wildlife, habitat and wilderness values of the refuge”? That’s the conclusion of environmental groups and the basis for Secretary Jewell’s decision. But doesn’t that seem to be an overly dire forecast for the impacts of a 40-foot-wide road corridor across a strip of land that’s three miles wide? Changes will occur, but development of this magnitude won’t destroy the value of the refuge. Its creatures and plants won’t be pushed toward extinction.
The real heart of the environmentalists’ argument is similar to the one that’s been at play in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They fear that allowing any development at all would set a disturbing precedent for the entire National Wildlife Refuge system. It’s the same “the sky will fall” scenario as the National Rifle Association’s warning to Americans that the passage of even one small gun control law is the doorway to abolishing the Second Amendment forever.
The scale of road construction and commercial development that’s trampled the world elsewhere isn’t about to happen here because of one access road in a remote wilderness. But by applying the same desperate argument whenever development is proposed on public lands, environmental organizations undermine the public’s trust they need to deal with the serious problems facing the rest of our world. And more important to the real people of King Cove, this debate should be focused entirely on the nature of medical hardships they’ve experienced.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.