Salazar to discuss proposed refuge with King Cove 

Residents of a remote Alaska village will get a face-to-face meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to make their case for a road through a national wildlife refuge to reach an all-weather airport and emergency medical care.

A spokesman for the Interior Department said Friday that Ken Salazar has agreed to meet with residents of King Cove to discuss the proposed road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a conservation unit that provides protection to thousands of migratory bird and includes habitat that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers unique, including vast beds of nutritious eelgrass.

Interior Department spokesman Blake Androff said by email that the meeting was scheduled at the request of King Cove residents and Alaska's U.S. senators, Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Lisa Murkowski.

King Cove City Administrator Gary Hennigh said the meeting is set for Feb. 28 in Salazar's office in Washington, D.C.

"We're obviously pleased," he said. "It's about time."

The community six times has requested a meeting with the secretary, Hennigh said, and will send a delegation that includes children and the elderly in addition to the usual community officials.

"We want him to hear and see the faces of the real people in King Cove," he said.

King Cove is wedged between mountains and ocean on the Alaska Peninsula at the head of the Aleutian Chain. Residents say up to 50 percent of flights in the community of 900 are delayed or canceled by notorious strong winds whipping off the North Pacific.

The airport at nearby Cold Bay, a former military facility with Alaska's third-longest runway, can operate in foul weather but is a harrowing boat ride away when planes are not flying into King Cove. Residents want a land route that crosses an isthmus and nine miles of a refuge considered to be of global importance for migratory birds.

King Cove, with the backing of the state, proposed a land trade for the road: 206 acres from the refuge and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on an island south of Kodiak. In return, the federal government would receive 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp.

Congress approved the land exchange five years ago. Murkowski in a speech Thursday expressed frustration that the Fish and Wildlife Service had rejected the 300-to-1 deal.

The service contends that quantity does not make up for quality and the Izembek habitat is unique to the refuge system.

Environmental groups contend that building a road through a national refuge would set a dangerous national precedent and that Congress addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access that included a $9 million hovercraft. That vessel was taken off line after another municipality, the Aleutians East Borough, decided it was too expensive to operate and could not reliably connect the communities.

02/18/2013 - 4:53am