ANCHORAGE — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell received bad information before rejecting a road through a national wildlife refuge that could help medical patients in a small Alaska village, leaders of the community said Thursday.
In a letter, community leaders in King Cove asked Jewell to reconsider her decision rejecting a one-lane gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge so that sick or injured residents could have land access to an all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay.
Road advocates say lives are endangered when aircraft cannot reach the King Cove airport, where strong winds and foul weather make flying dangerous. There is no safe alternative to a road, despite a suggestion in a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service review that suggested a landing craft could transport patients.
“The Borough has subsequently determined that neither a landing craft, nor any other marine solution, could provide safe, reliable, and affordable transportation services between King Cove and Cold Bay,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by Stanley Mack, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough, and four other tribe and community leaders.
Jewell in late summer toured the community near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. She announced last month that she had rejected a road through the refuge, which shelters millions of migratory waterfowl. Izembek 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 head south for the winter.
Congress in 1997 addressed King Cove transportation and appropriated $37.5 million for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took the hovercraft out of service after deciding it was too expensive and unreliable to operate.
Environmental groups strongly oppose a refuge road for the damage it would cause and the precedent it would set for road construction in a refuge. They contend King Cove’s notorious winds will shut travel on a road as easily as they delay flights.
Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation strongly support the road and a land swap that would have exchanged state and private land for refuge access.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich on Wednesday announced he was introducing a bill that would require approval of the land exchange and allow the state to build the road.