Interior Dept. grants state survey permit for King Cove road

  • Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin Nolan, a flight surgeon with Rockmore-King Clinic, discusses a 5-month-old girl’s medical condition to her mother during a medevac from King Cove to Anchorage aboard an HC-130 Hercules aircraft on April 7, 2011. A long-sought road from King Cove to Cold Bay that would allow for safer medical evacuations is a couple steps closer after the U.S. Interior Department granted a permit to survey a road route and the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee advanced Rep. Don Young’s bill to authorize the road through a land exchange. (Photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Charly Hengen/U.S. Coast Guard)

The State of Alaska is preparing to build a long-debated road on the Alaska Peninsula as legislation authorizing the project inches its way through Congress.

Gov. Bill Walker said in a June 26 statement from his office that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called him that morning to notify the governor that the Interior Department had granted the state permission to survey a route for a road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

“For far too long, King Cove residents suffering medical emergencies have had to brave harsh elements just to get health care,” Walker said. “They travel by boat or helicopter — often in inclement weather — to access the Cold Bay airport in order to be medevaced out. Our fellow Alaskans deserve better than that. I’m grateful to Secretary Zinke for recognizing that need and doing his best to advance the process to build that life-saving road.”

For the next few weeks Alaska Department of Transportation surveyors will be working to identify the least impactful route for the road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The work should be done by mid-July, according to the governor’s office.

On June 27, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill introduced by Rep. Don Young to authorize an equal-value land exchange between the State of Alaska and the federal government to give the state the 206 acres of the Izembek refuge that it would need for the 11-mile road right-of-way to complete the roughly 30-mile, single-lane gravel road.

The legislation, which was also introduced in the Senate by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, would allow for up to 43,000 acres of state land to be added to the refuge and swapped for the 206 acres of refuge land. That is very close to the swap that passed Congress and President Barack Obama approved in 2009.

In 2013, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell chose the “no action” alternative and rejected the exchange — preventing the road — after the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the road itself would damage critical waterfowl nesting areas and could lead to additional habitat damage through increased access to the refuge.

True to form, Young pulled no punches in a press release statement when his bill moved.

“Secretary Jewell’s heartless denial of the King Cove emergency access road was a willful and deliberate dismissal of human life in the name of wildlife; it represented one of the worst government actions I’ve seen in all my years in Congress,” Young said. “And since that decision, the community has experienced 53 medevacs in often treacherous conditions. This legislation is an important step to ensuring the people of King Cove have safe and reliable transportation during medical emergencies.”

The 315,000-acre Izembek Refuge surrounds the village of Cold Bay and is home to entire populations of some waterfowl species, such as the Pacific black brant, at certain times of the year.

The road would give King Cove residents in urgent need of medical care a reliable link in bad weather to the large World War II-era airport at Cold Bay.

Conservation groups and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta-area Association of Village Council Presidents have pushed back against efforts by the state and the delegation to build the road. AVCP wrote to Jewell in 2013 about a worry it could impact the populations of geese western Alaska residents hunt for subsistence.

In February the Alaska Legislature unanimously passed a resolution in support of the construction project.

DOT has the road listed as a $30 million project in its Transportation Improvement Plan for fiscal year 2019 and differing state House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2018 capital budget each reappropriate $10 million of unspent DOT funds to start paying for what is known to most as the King Cove road.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
06/28/2017 - 12:52pm

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