State asks to join King Cove’s lawsuit over road access


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Alaska is again looking for a fight with the feds, this time over the King Cove access road.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Lenhart filed a motion June 30 to intervene on behalf of the tribes of King Cove in the tribe’s federal District Court lawsuit against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over Jewell’s rejection of a proposed emergency access road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

Also listed as plaintiffs in the case is the Aleutians East Borough and King Cove Corp., the Native village corporation.

At the heart of the case is a land exchange that would shift approximately 43,000 acres of state land in the region and 13,000 acres of King Cove Corp. land to the federal government in exchange for 206 acres of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — land that would be used as the right-of-way for the road.

“After years of putting birds over the well-being of Alaskans, it’s time for the Obama administration to agree to this exchange,” Gov. Sean Parnell said in a release from his office.

On April 7 Parnell announced in a statement from his office the state’s intent to sue the Interior Department to get the road built on a separate claim — a right-of-way claim under the federal Mining Act of 1866.

The disputed 11-mile section of road would connect segments of current road on state land. At the time, Attorney General Michael Geraghty sent a letter to Jewell that served as notice to the state’s intent to sue the department.

According to federal statute, the state must wait 180 days after issuing the notice before it can take the feds to court on the right-of-way claim, making the earliest date it could sue Oct. 4.

Supporters of the road effort claim the one-lane link is essential for the safety of residents of King Cove, as it would provide them reliable access to the all-weather airport with a 10,000-foot runway in Cold Bay. The villages on the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula sit across the water of Cold Bay from each other and are terrestrially separated by the Izembek Refuge.

In an official statement from her office, Jewell said in December that she would uphold the no action alternative preferred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the environmental impact statement, or EIS, process required for the land swap. At the time Jewell said critical waterfowl habitat would be disrupted by the road and said Interior would work with King Cove residents to find a safe travel alternative.

Currently, people in King Cove that are in need of extensive medical attention must be flown out by U.S. Coast Guard medevacs to receive treatment in Anchorage during bad weather.

The State of Alaska claims it should be allowed to intervene in the suit because Jewell is preventing the state from managing its lands and ignores its role as a cooperating agency in the EIS process. The state cannot fulfill its duty to keep its residents safe without the land swap. Also, the state is prevented from managing its land in the best interest of its residents if it is not allowed to make such deals, according to the court filing.

“Finally, the state has an interest in ensuring that its citizens and communities are provided reasonable access across the vast federal land holdings in the state. In this case, the health and safety purposes of such access over the Izembek Refuge are literally of life and death importance,” the motion states.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has ranted at length over Jewell’s decision, calling it “offensive” and “insulting” on multiple occasions.

Congress and the state in a 2009 omnibus land management bill approved the land exchange, but is contingent upon the Interior secretary’s approval based on the EIS.

The road, estimated to cost about $21 million, would be paid for by the state.

Opponents have said the road would not only harm wildlife, but could be used by fish processors in the area, would not always be passable during hazardous weather conditions and would set a precedent of development in federally protected wild areas.

As of June 30, the Department of the Interior had not responded in court to the original lawsuit.

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

 

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