Murkowski keeps up fight for reversal of King Cove action
President Barack Obama walks out of the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 6 with REI Inc. CEO Sally Jewell and departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has written the president, Salazar and Jewell telling them she is willing to use “all actions” available to her as a senator to reverse a recent decision by an Interior Department agency to prohibit an emergency access road from King Cove to Cold Bay.
Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is continuing to fight a Feb. 5 Department of the Interior finding that threatens to kill a proposed emergency access road between the villages of King Cove and Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula.
On Feb. 12, Murkowski sent letters to President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the president’s nominee for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in which she stated her case to move forward with the road despite the Feb. 5 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. FWS is an agency within the Interior Department.
In her letter to the president, Murkowski wrote: “The road would permit Native Alaskans a more dependable means to get to the all-weather airport at neighboring Cold Bay. At this time of year, when the weather is often too extreme to permit travel by air, the only alternative is a death-defying, 2.5 hour boat trip through 20-foot seas across Cold Bay, followed by a 20-foot climb up a dock ladder — a trip that is simply impossible for many frail patients or pregnant women.”
The Cold Bay Airport has a 10,000-foot runway. Current travel between the communities must be by air or sea.
The proposed 20-mile single-lane gravel road would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Construction of 11 miles of new road would be required to connect existing roads in the area and link the communities.
In 2009, Congress approved a land exchange to remove 206 acres from the refuge and in return receive more than 56,000 acres of combined state and Native village corporation land. Provisions of the exchange ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an environmental impact statement and for the Interior secretary to make a subsequent public interest determination.
A FWS release about its study stated that following: “careful evaluation of the impact of the construction and operation of the proposed road on the refuge and its wildlife resources, the agency has identified its preferred alternative as one that does not support allowing the land exchange to go forward.”
On Feb. 7, Murkowski made her case for the road in a speech from the Senate floor. In her speech to the Senate and in her subsequent letters, Murkowski repeatedly noted that the 2009 land exchange authorization required the road be used strictly for emergency activity and that it would be closed to commercial activity.
Since addressing the Senate, Murkowski has hinted publicly that she may take steps to put a hold Jewell’s Senate confirmation to head of DOI to make her point.
“I must tell you that this issue means so much to me that I am prepared to consider all actions available to me as a U.S. Senator to convince this administration that denying the people of King Cove reliable access to medical care would be a travesty,” Murkowski wrote to Jewell.
In statements following the FWS announcement, Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young also criticized the agency’s finding.
When asked whether Begich supported Murkowski’s comments about possibly delaying Jewell’s confirmation, Begich’s office offered the following statement from the senator to the Journal: “The Secretary of the Interior is a critical post for Alaska and our unique needs. As with any nominee, I am looking forward to meeting with Ms. Jewell and discussing a range of Alaska priorities so that I can make a decision that is right for my state and my constituents.”
Murkowski cited numerous aircraft accidents that have occurred around King Cove as evidence to the road’s importance in her letter to the president.
“Since 1979, more than a dozen residents have lost their lives and countless residents have been injured in air crashes, many caused by the need to attempt to leave the community to gain emergency medical care. King Cove does have a small Indian Health Service Clinic, but only local community health aides, and not a doctor, staff it. Health care is delivered in Anchorage, some 620 miles away,” she wrote.
King Cove fluctuates seasonally between about 750 and 1,000 residents.
A formal public interest decision is expected from DOI within 30 days.
During her speech to the Senate, Murkowski said she had discussed the issue with Salazar over the phone. The Senator wrote to the Interior secretary to “again express my strongest displeasure at the extremely troubling decision” by FWS.
Murkowski ended her letters to the president, vice president and Salazar by urging them to take necessary actions to reverse what she called a “wrong-headed and short-sighted decision” by FWS.
She also asked Salazar and Jewell to meet with residents of King Cove before making a final determination.
In 1998, Congress allocated $9 million for a hovercraft to operate between King Cove and Cold Bay. The Aleutians East Borough ceased the transport in 2011 citing annual operating costs of more than $1 million.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.