ANCHORAGE — Residents of a remote Alaska peninsula community met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday to urge him to allow a road through a national wildlife refuge, arguing that the one-lane gravel road would serve as a much-needed emergency route.
King Cove resident Lonnie Brandell told Salazar the story of taking his father to the hospital six years ago. Brandell’s father had fallen ill with double pneumonia but couldn’t fly out because of the community’s notorious high winds.
To reach an all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay, the Brandells boarded a friend’s 58-foot fishing boat, made a three-hour, 18-mile trip through waves that were hitting the boat’s windows, and then faced a 16-foot steel ladder to reach an ambulance on a dock.
With his father recovering from shoulder surgery and too weak to lift himself, two men had to lift Brandell’s father by rope as Brandell pushed him from below, chest to back, rung by rung. He was then flown to Anchorage for treatment.
“It was not good all the way,” Lonnie Brandell said.
The road to Cold Bay has been billed as an emergency route for ambulances but would be open to private vehicles. It would travel through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, home to the world’s largest known bed of eelgrass, which feeds millions of migratory birds before they fly south for the winter.
Environmental groups have submitted thousands of comments opposing the road, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Feb. 5 rejected a land exchange that would have led to a route through the wilderness area.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, supports the road and says she may put a hold on the confirmation of Salazar’s replacement, Sally Jewell, if Salazar doesn’t override the agency decision.
Murkowski said last week that any traffic on the road likely would be limited by the lack of attractions in tiny Cold Bay and the high price of gasoline.
A delegation from King Cove met with Salazar in his Washington office, along with Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn and Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. The delegation was promised a half hour with Salazar, but that stretched into an hour, King Cove spokeswoman Della Trumble said.
“We asked him to seriously reconsider, to take a closer look at this issue,” she said. “It’s an issue we fought for 35 years.”
Congress thought the problem was solved in 1998 when it appropriated a $37.5 million for improved King Cove access. That included a $9 million hovercraft that was grounded when winds exceeded 30 mph. The Aleutians East Borough eventually decided it was too expensive to operate. It now operates in Akutan, an island in the Aleutians.
Trumble said the same winds that ground aircraft make a marine option unworkable.
“That option doesn’t work and it hasn’t worked and it won’t work,” she said by phone after the Salazar meeting.
Environmental groups contend building a road through wilderness area would set a terrible precedent, making other protected areas vulnerable.
The road would be a costly boondoggle and isn’t necessary, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society.
The hovercraft was involved in 30 medical evacuations in almost all weather conditions, she said in a statement. Every death that King Cove has cited because it lacks a road occurred before the hovercraft was put in service, she said. Winter storms likely will also close a road.
“Taxpayers funded a multi-million-dollar vessel that provided local residents reliable and efficient access to medical evacuations,” Whittington-Evans said. “The borough complained that it was too costly, and then moved it to a new community where it operates at the same level of expense.”
Salazar gave no indication when he would decide, but the road issue is not going away, Trumble said.
“It’s the only mode of transportation or access that will allow us a 99 percent success rate of getting back and forth between the two communities.”