ANCHORAGE — An Alaska U.S. senator hopes that Obama administration officials will support a plan to put a road through a national wildlife refuge after taking trips to a rural village.
Republican Lisa Murkowski is lining up visits to King Cove as part of a push to open a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally recognized bird sanctuary near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. The villagers want a land route to an all-weather airport and flights for emergency medical care.
Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn is expected in King Cove the last week of May, said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon by email. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has been invited in August but no dates have been confirmed.
Murkowski is hoping to reverse a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision rejecting a road.
“I hope you will listen not only with your ears but with your heart,” Murkowski told Washburn April 25 at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing.
King Cove residents want road access to Cold Bay, a former military facility with Alaska’s third-longest runway. King Cove residents say up to 50 percent of their own flights are delayed or canceled by notorious strong winds whipping off the North Pacific and that emergency trips by boat also are unsafe.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in February concluded that a road splitting a peninsula isthmus could cause irrevocable damage to the refuge that protects the watershed of several large lagoons, including the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, which provides one of the world’s largest beds of eelgrass for Pacific brant, endangered Steller’s eiders and other migratory birds.
Environmental groups strongly oppose a road. They contend it would open the door for roads through other wilderness areas. They say King Cove winds will shut in a road as easily as they delay flights. They also say Congress addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access that included a $9 million hovercraft. That vessel was taken offline after another municipality, the Aleutians East Borough, decided it was too expensive to operate and could not reliably connect the communities.
Aleutians East Borough Administrator Rick Gifford said Tuesday it’s important for people making decisions affecting lives of King Cove residents to see what life is like in the fishing village.
“I think that’s what’s kind of lacked in the past, is the people who are making the decisions really don’t have a good idea of what it’s like out there and what that impact is on the human life, so someone can weigh in on the human life versus the wildlife,” Gifford said.
Dillon said Washburn will be expected to take a closer look at whether the Fish and Wildlife Service’s environmental impact statement adequately considered the Interior Department’s Alaska Native trust responsibilities.
“If Washburn determines that the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t fully consider the human health and safety aspect of the road proposal, then Interior could reopen the EIS for additional information,” he said.