ANCHORAGE — An Alaska village sued the U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday after it rejected a road through a national wildlife refuge that could improve access to emergency flights at a nearby all-weather airport.
The city of King Cove, tribal governments and individuals filed the lawsuit against Secretary Sally Jewell for the agency’s denial of a gravel road to nearby Cold Bay through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally recognized habitat for migratory birds.
“This is about protecting the lives of human beings,” Della Trumble, a representative of the Agdaagux Tribe, said in an announcement of the lawsuit.
The state of Alaska in April gave the required 180 days’ notice that it also would sue. Interior Department spokeswoman Emily Beyer said by email that the agency could not comment on litigation.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Anchorage claims the Interior Department’s rejection is a violation of federal law and arbitrary because no other reasonable transportation alternatives exist.
King Cove and Cold Bay are on Alaska Peninsula.
The road is proposed for an isthmus along the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, home to world’s largest known bed of eelgrass, which provides fodder to migratory waterfowl such as Pacific brant and endangered Steller’s eiders as they head south for the winter.
Strong winds and inclement weather often make it impossible to safely fly to King Cove, a village of 938. Cold Bay, a former military facility, is home to Alaska’s third-longest runway. A road was built between the two locations during World War II but was later abandoned.
In December, Jewell rejected a proposed land swap that would have changed the boundaries of the refuge to complete construction of a 30-mile road, including 11 miles of new road, to Cold Bay. The trade would give the federal government far more acreage — 97.5 square miles for less than 3 square miles. However, Jewell agreed with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife analysis saying the exchange could not compensate for the special qualities of existing refuge lands.
Environmental groups strongly oppose the road for the precedent it would set in refuges and for damage it would create in world-class migratory bird habitat.
Congress in 1997 addressed the transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took the vessel out of service after deciding it was unreliable and too expensive to operate.
Village residents contend the department is trading human lives for birds.
The lawsuit said Leff Kenezuroff, a plaintiff, has been medically evacuated to Cold Bay four times after heart attacks. After one episode, when planes could not fly, he was carried on a crab boat and hoisted to the dock in a crab pot because he could not climb a 25-foot ladder.
Eleven people have been medically evacuated since Jan. 1, according to village officials.
“We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t lost any lives this year during these challenging medivacs,” King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said.