U.S. House approves King Cove road with bipartisan support

  • A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter crew assists King Cove emergency medical personnel in transferring a 63-year-old woman from the King Cove clinic to a Coast Guard helicopter on Feb. 7, 2011. The woman was reported to have abdominal pains and needed medevaced to Cold Bay where she was transferred to a Guardian Flight for further medical care in Anchorage. Seventeen such medevacs by the Coast Guard have taken place since a 2013 decision by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reject a road alternative that would have eliminated the need for medevacs by air or sea. (Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

The contentious road out of King Cove is, again, halfway to being built.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed standalone legislation Thursday approving a state-federal land swap to needed to facilitate construction of the 11-mile, single-lane gravel road to complete a 30-mile connection between the Alaska Peninsula communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

The King Cove Land Exchange Act passed the House by a vote of 248-179 with bipartisan support. It now heads to the Senate.

Trump administration officials have supported the land exchange and road project. In late June the Interior Department approved a permit allowing the state Department of Transportation to survey the area to determine the best road corridor.

The Alaska DOT estimates the road will cost about $30 million, which will likely be paid for by the state.

Alaska’s congressional delegation and several Alaska governors have pushed for the road between the small, isolated communities, as it would link King Cove to the large runway at Cold Bay and provide a safer route to Anchorage for those in urgent need of medical care in a region known for treacherous weather.

Gov. Bill Walker commended Rep. Don Young for getting the legislation through the House in a statement from his office.

“I thank Congressman Young for accomplishing this important milestone. While the work is not yet finished, the passage of H.R. 218 is a critical step towards actually building this necessary and life-saving road,” Walker said. “State and federal agencies, our congressional and the residents of King Cove are continuing to work well towards this shared goal, and I look forward to seeing additional progress.”

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan also introduced mirror legislation in the Senate.

The Alaska Legislature unanimously approved a resolution supporting the road project this past winter.

With a paved runway longer than 10,000 feet, Cold Bay’s airport has one of the longest civilian runways in the state and is the area’s main link to Anchorage. It is left over from a military post built during World War II.

King Cove’s airport has a 3,500-foot gravel runway with mountains nearby that prevent its expansion. Over the years 19 people have died in plane crashes or waiting to get medevac service out of King Cove. However, no one has died trying to leave since 1994.

“This is an issue that should have been settled a long time ago,” Young said in a press release. “In 2009, this Congress passed a land exchange piece of legislation — very similar to this. We made one mistake; we did put into it the ability for the Fish and Wildlife (Service) to make recommendations. Even then the recommendations were on the positive side. The last administration decided, under the Secretary of the Interior, not to build an 11-mile road to save my constituents — the Aleut people from King Cove — in favor of a goose. And the people of King Cove weren’t really considered.”

Young was referencing a December 2013 decision by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to deny the land swap of about 43,000 State of Alaska acres for 206 acres of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge needed for the road corridor. Since then 63 medevacs have occurred from King Cove, with 17 of those by the U.S. Coast Guard. According to a statement from the House Natural Resources Committee, such Coast Guard medevacs cost up to $30,000 each.

Jewell’s decision was lauded by local and national hunting and conservation organizations on the belief the road would damage critical breeding habitat for waterfowl, particularly the Pacific black brant. The refuge is the summer home to 98 percent of the species’ worldwide population, according to the Interior Department.

Western Alaska Native groups that subsistence hunt waterfowl elsewhere that migrate through Izembek have also formally opposed the road.

Opponents of the land swap also object to building a road through what is currently congressionally designated wilderness and that it would be an unprecedented turnabout in federal land management. They also argue the road, which Murkowski has continuously characterized as “noncommercial” would be used by fish processors to get their products flown out of Cold Bay.

Young’s bill contains the same use restrictions for the road as were in the 2009 lands bill signed by President Barack Obama; it allows for people transport, including via taxi or bus service, but prohibits other commercial operations.

Finally, some note the feds have already tried to help King Cove residents by appropriating $37.5 million in 1999 for a hovercraft and dock facilities to run over the water body of Cold Bay between the communities. The Aleutians East Borough eventually abandoned.

After spending $9 million on a hovercraft in 2004, the Aleutians East Borough took the hovercraft out of service in 2010 saying it was too expensive to operate and couldn’t handle rough water.

An amendment to Young’s bill offered by Arizona Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva would have required the State of Alaska to repay $20 million of the hovercraft money before the land swap could be executed.

The amendment, which failed, was criticized by Young who said it would penalize the state for an unreliable hovercraft operation put together by President Bill Clinton’s administration that the people of King Cove never wanted.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

07/20/2017 - 2:28pm