Flurry of medevacs stokes road battle
When it comes to a road for King Cove, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has held true to her word and has not let the issue die.
Alaska’s senior senator has railed on Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision to deny a land swap that would allow emergency road access between the Alaska Peninsula villages of King Cove and Cold Bay at every opportunity since Jewell announced her ruling Dec. 23, 2013.
At an impromptu press conference in Anchorage immediately following that call she received from Jewell, Murkowski called the decision an “insult” and “offensive,” and said she regretted voting to confirm Jewell.
Murkowski took her fight to the Senate floor April 1, a day after the medevac of an injured fisherman out of King Cove in which the fishing vessel he was aboard couldn’t make it to Cold Bay because of rough seas and the Coast Guard had to wait four hours to reach King Cove because of high winds.
“Maybe I’m taking this too personally,” Murkowski said about 10 minutes into her April 1 floor speech. “Both my sons fish in these areas; they go through the Gulf of Alaska; they go through Unimak Pass (west of Cold Bay) every year as fishermen. And if something should happen to them or if something should happen to their crew, and the closest deepwater port happens to be King Cove but the weather is to the ground I want a road for them. I want a road for the people of King Cove. I want a road for the Seattle fisherman who is transiting back because it’s a lifeline.”
Alaska’s congressional delegation, Gov. Sean Parnell and King Cove residents say the road would provide an essential link for emergency services when bad weather prevents flights out of King Cove or boat travel across Cold Bay.
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. The old military post was built during World War II.
King Cove’s airport has a 3,500-foot gravel runway. The village has roughly 960 year-round residents. 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.
Murkowski did not change her choice of words when speaking directly to Jewell during a March 26 hearing held by the Senate Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee on the proposed Interior budget for the 2015 fiscal year.
“The notion from your department that you must protect Alaska from Alaska Natives, our first people, is insulting,” Murkowski said to Jewell.
At the heart of the issue is a planned 11-mile gravel road that would cut across what is now Izembek National Wildlife Refuge land and connect King Cove and Cold Bay.
The land exchange calls for the federal government to turn over 206 acres in the Izembek Refuge along with 1,600 acres outside the refuge in exchange for about 56,000 acres land owned by the state and King Cove Corp., the Alaska Native village corporation.
Congress approved the land swap and it was signed into law in 2009, but turning over the federal land requires the Interior secretary’s approval. It would give the state the right-of-way it needs to build the section of road that has been estimated to cost about $21 million and would be paid for by the state.
In February 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior agency, recommended that then-Interior head Ken Salazar reject the land swap based on the impact it could have to wildlife habitat in the refuge. Salazar chose not to rule on the issue and Murkowski’s confirmation vote for Jewell’s appointment was contingent upon her visiting King Cove, which she did last August.
Jewell said in a December Interior Department release that the road would cause “irreversible damage” to the Izembek Refuge, that she understands the need for reliable transportation between the communities and that other methods of transport could be improved to meet community needs.
In summer, the 315,000-acre refuge is home to 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant, a goose that breeds there, according to the Interior Department.
“The lives of our people, our elders, children and grandchildren are at stake over this issue,” Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack said after Jewell’s decision. “Are birds really more important than people? It seems so hard to believe that the federal government finds it impossible to accommodated both wildlife and human beings. Is the Obama administration turning its back on Native Americans?”
Murkowski said to Jewell March 26 that the president’s Interior budget does not have any money set aside for alternative modes of transportation between King Cove and Cold Bay.
Jewell said the department needs suggestions from local residents about viable alternatives if the road that she diplomatically called Murkowski’s “preferred alternative” does not go through.
The possibility of a permanent U.S. Coast Guard position in Cold Bay, which has been floated by Jewell and others, is out of the question according to Murkowski, who said she talked to regional commanders in the Coast Guard who dismissed the idea.
“I think it is very clear that the Coast Guard does not view this as a mission, that they do not view this as a mission they wish to take on,” Murkowski said. “In order to accommodate the people of King Cove on a somewhat regular basis they would require two additional helicopters at $26.1 million apiece.”
Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said Coast Guard medevacs from King Cove to Cold Bay — there have been five conducted through April 1 this year and eight since Jewell’s Dec. 23 decision — cost up to $210,000 each, as a helicopter often must be dispatched from Kodiak Island.
In an April 2 letter to Murkowski, Coast Guard Congressional and Governmental Affairs Cmdr. Daniel P. Walsh wrote that a new, permanent facility in Cold Bay equipped with two MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters would cost $112 million initially and $11.4 million per year to operate.
Jewell’s decision, while relentlessly hammered by Murkowski, has been supported by conservation groups, a number of former assistant Interior secretaries and some of the residents of Cold Bay.
In February 2009, the village of Cold Bay mailed out 52 surveys asking residents to share their sentiment about the proposed road link with their neighbors. According to a summary of the surveys, 29 were returned with stances against the road and nine were for it.
When asked about the issue, Cold Bay Mayor Jorge Lopez said he would have to consult with the city council and would not be able to comment in time for this story.
A bipartisan group of former assistant Interior secretaries from the Nixon, Ford, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations wrote a letter to Jewell dated March 14 supporting her stance against a road through Izembek.
The letter notes that in 1998, the Clinton administration reached an agreement with the road’s then-biggest proponent, Alaska’s late Sen. Ted Stevens, to appropriate $37.5 million for upgrades to the King Cove clinic, dock facilities and a new hovercraft for use between King Cove and Cold Bay.
After spending $9 million on a hovercraft, 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.
Jewell has said the hovercraft handled every emergency transport needed while it was in service.
What is happening to the hovercraft now is another story. Used for nearly two years as a shuttle between the Aleutian village of Akutan and the new village airport on Akun Island about 6 miles away, Aleutians East Borough spokeswoman Laura Tanis said it was taken out of service Feb. 15.
The borough plans to put the hovercraft up for sale, Tanis said, with the proceeds going to projects in Akutan and King Cove.
Tanis cited the cost and unreliability of the hovercraft as reasons for discontinuing its use.
Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under President Clinton, wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times March 11 with the headline “Alaska’s ‘road to nowhere’ is still a boondoggle,” referencing the infamously-dubbed Bridge to Nowhere proposed between Ketchikan and Gravina Island.
According to Babbitt, the road would connect salmon processing facilities in King Cove to the Cold Bay’s airport and allow for expanded shipping of commercial fish. Additionally, he wrote that the road would “set a dangerous precedent as the first new road ever authorized through a congressionally protected wilderness area, one of the most stunning estuaries on the planet.”
Murkowski has emphasized the road would be restricted to emergency-use only.
Even the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta-area Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 Western Alaska Native villages, has weighed in. In a letter to Jewell dated May 6, 2013, AVCP President Myron P. Naneng Sr. wrote that the group opposes the Izembek road as stakeholders of the waterfowl resource because of concerns about what it would do to goose habitat.
“In taking this position (against the road), AVCP is not dismissing the valid concerns of the people of King Cove. We believe, however, that the proposed road is not the solution — that other transportation alternatives that would not impact migratory waterfowl should be discussed and developed with King Cove,” Naneng wrote.
Alaska Region Director of The Wilderness Society Nicole Whittington-Evans echoed Babbitt in an interview saying that the road set a very dangerous precedent for development in designated wilderness areas and questioned how the road would be kept open during dangerous winter weather.
“We want local residents (in King Cove) to have safe transportation that is as reliable as their remote location allows,” Whittington-Evans said.
She added that residents in need of immediate medical care would not use a road when faster air transportation is available.
The Wilderness Society’s Alaska spokesman Tim Woody said the organization supports Jewell’s ruling on the road through “science-based rationale” and that other alternatives, such as returning the hovercraft to service, should be investigated.
“We agreed with Sally Jewell that this is about finding a solution that meets all needs,” Woody said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].