COLD BAY - This isolated outpost, where grizzly bears outnumber people and the one-page phone book is dubbed "the yellow page," is fast emerging as a flash point in the nation's debate over drilling.
A plan to construct 45 miles of road through the virgin tundra of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has turned into a heated battle between area residents, who say they need better access to the airport here, and environmentalists, who suspect, without concrete evidence, that the oil industry is secretly behind the effort.
In a state still recovering from the bruising fight over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, all eyes have turned to Congress, which is expected to vote during a lame-duck session this month on a land swap that would open the way for road construction.
The road proposal began more than a decade ago as a strictly local concern. Aleut residents of a nearby fishing hamlet sought a single-lane gravel road so they could travel over land to Cold Bay's airport, the only one in the region capable of airlifting sick people to hospitals during unpredictable hurricane-force winds and blinding snows.
Critics see other motives.
"The premise for this road is absurd," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which opposes the road as an unprecedented intrusion into a federal preserve. "It won't work as advertised and won't save lives. The only way it makes any sense at all is if you tie it to oil and gas development."
But residents who live on the other side of the refuge, across an inlet, in the 800-person village of King Cove simply point to the wreckage of small planes that failed to reach their narrow gravel airstrip and now litter Mount Dutton, a dormant volcano.
"Go up and look at that graveyard," said Herman "Buddy" Bendixen, 83, an Aleut elder and lifelong resident. "They got sick and couldn't get out."
Without question, the residents of King Cove endure in perilous isolation. Parents forbid teenagers to jog alone, fearing bear attacks. The sun shines fewer than 60 days a year. Access to the village is by air or by sea, and is dependent on the weather.
A decade ago, town officials appealed to Congress for an escape route. Lawmakers rejected the idea of a road but provided $37 million to buy a hovercraft to shuttle sick residents to safety and fund other health-care improvements.
But the push for a road continued. To build it, the state needed to acquire a 200-acre strip of land through the federal wildlife refuge. So the mayor of King Cove and the head of the regional government, the Aleutians East Borough, proposed that the state and native governments swap 61,000 undeveloped acres for the crucial right-of-way controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The villagers hired high-powered advocates to help them, dipping into a $2.4 million budget over the past two years to spend $145,000 on lobbying in Washington and $136,000 more to fly officials there to push the issue, city records show. The borough spent an additional $72,000 during that period for lobbying in the state capital.
Their emissary in Alaska was Mark Hickey, a former state transportation commissioner who lobbies for municipal governments and also represents Harbor Enterprise, an oil and gas marketing and distribution company. The villagers also hired Steven Silver, who was the lobbyist for Wasilla when Gov. Sarah Palin was its mayor, to represent King Cove in Washington.
After Hickey brought local officials to a January 2007 meeting with Palin, the governor sent letters to Alaska's congressional delegation and the federal wildlife agency urging support for the road project.
Congress now has differing Senate and House versions of the land-swap plan included in a much larger lands bill awaiting final action.
As with many state issues, the road raises both hopes and fears regarding oil and gas. The Izembek refuge abuts the North Aleutian Basin, one of the nation's last untapped petroleum reservoirs.
The recent decision to expand offshore drilling has reopened discussion of exploration off the Aleutian peninsula. Borough Mayor Stanley Mack said Shell executives have visited multiple times, and he predicted an enormous natural gas operation in colder waters to the north. King Cove could become the staging site. In preparation, the city has created a football-field-size swath of harbor that could store heavy equipment.
Shell's interest in the area is not academic. The company paid almost $1 million in 2007 for rights to drill on 33 blocks of state land in the borough. The company has courted local officials, taking them this year to visit offshore facilities in the Gulf of Mexico and to a conference in Norway.
Shell, which did not respond to requests for comment, has also increased its presence locally. Among other civic involvements, the company designed a second- and third-grade curriculum to teach students about oil and gas development.
The road through Izembek would initially ban commercial traffic, but some believe it could one day be used to move workers or equipment between King Cove, with its deep harbor, and Cold Bay, with its airport. Perhaps more important, the road would signal a policy shift in allowing, for the first time, a new public road through a highly protected federal wildlife refuge.
If Congress approves the land swap, road supporters will face another hurdle - a required environmental review. King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss predicted that under a Democratic administration, "it will be much tougher" to get approval.
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