ANCHORAGE — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has completed a firsthand look at a remote Alaska national wildlife refuge that shelters millions of migratory waterfowl but said Tuesday she’s set no timetable for deciding whether to allow a road though it to improve medical access for a nearby village.
Wrapping up nearly a week in Alaska, Jewell said at a press conference Tuesday she continues to review information on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, the finger of land at the start of the Aleutian Islands.
“I have to synthesize all that information before I make a decision, and when I’m ready to make a decision, I’ll make one,” she said.
The village of King Cove, backed by Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska congressional delegation, is pushing Jewell to approve a land exchange that would allow construction of a one-lane gravel road through Izembek, an isthmus between lagoons including the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon. The lagoon is home to the world’s largest known bed of eelgrass and provides fodder to Pacific brant, endangered Steller’s eiders and other migratory waterfowl as they fatten up to head south for the winter.
King Cove, with a population of 963, wants a road to provide emergency medical patients access to an all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay. Residents contend they were not consulted when the refuge was created in 1980. They say lives are endangered when aircraft cannot reach their own airport, where strong winds and foul weather make flying dangerous.
Congress addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The vessel was taken out of service when the Aleutians East Borough decided it was too expensive and unreliable to operate. Borough and King Cove officials began lobbying for their first choice, a road, and with the state proposed a land trade.
The land exchange proposes that the federal government give up 206 acres from the refuge and 1,600 acres from a refuge south of Kodiak for 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land belonging to King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation.
Despite the huge acreage differences, federal authorities, including Jewell’s predecessor, Ken Salazar, in February rejected the trade. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded a road could cause irrevocable damage to the refuge. Habitat within Izembek is unique within the refuge system, said agency spokesman Bruce Woods at the time.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, threatened to block Jewell’s nomination if the decision was not reconsidered.
Jewell she said she awaits a report on the land swap by Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. She said she will take what she learned from her trip but also information provided by Native Alaska groups who depend on the waterfowl that pass through the refuge. She will follow the law, she said. She’s less concerned about whether a road would set a precedent for building in wilderness areas.
“I’m going to weigh all the facts as it relates to this specific circumstance,” Jewell said. “The issue that I’m facing is one that is legal in its interpretation. When you follow the law, you’re not setting precedent, you’re following the law.”