King Cove road deal checks another item on Alaska to-do list

  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, center, speaks during an event in the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, second from right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22. Zinke was joined by Alaskan officials regarding the Interior Department’s decision to the construction of a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska.The road would connect the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport needed for emergency medical flights. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker listens at right. (Photo/Susan Walsh/AP)

Alaska’s congressional delegation celebrated another victory enabled by the Trump administration Jan. 22 when the Republicans revealed the details of a land swap allowing construction of a road out of the remote village of King Cove near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

The land exchange between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp., the area Native village corporation, will provide a 12-mile right-of-way through a portion of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The delegation, Gov. Bill Walker 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 600 miles away. The old military post was built during World War II.

King Cove’s airport has a 3,500-foot gravel runway for the community with roughly 950 year-round residents. Over the years 18 people have died in plane crashes or waiting to get medevac service out of King Cove, according to the Interior Department. However, no one has died trying to leave since 1994.

The U.S. Coast Guard has frequently served as a medevac service out of King Cove in bad weather — at more than $210,000 per trip when a helicopter is deployed from Kodiak, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the equal-value land exchange fulfills two of the primary duties of the federal government: keeping Americans safe and respecting treaty agreements with Native people.

“Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that’s just wrong,” Zinke said in a statement. “The people of King Cove have been stewarding the land and wildlife for thousands of years and I am confident that working together we will be able to continue responsible stewardship while also saving precious lives.”

Walker called the agreement “a paradigm shift” in a statement from his office, contending the feds had been irresponsible “by placing a higher value on appeasing people who will never get within a thousand miles of King Cove, over the health and safety of those who actually live there.”

In late 2013, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected land swap deal passed by Congress in 2009 after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental review determined the road would irreparably damage critical waterfowl habitat in the 315,000-acre Izembek Refuge.

That swap would have traded 206 acres of Izembek land and 1,600 federal acres outside the refuge for about 56,000 acres of state and King Cove Corp. land.

The new eight-page agreement calls for an equal-value land swap between King Cove Corp. and Interior. Further work must be done to identify exactly what lands will be exchanged, but neither side is to give up more than 500 acres, according to the deal.

Rep. Don Young called assertions by environmental groups and the others, including some Republicans, that the road would unacceptably damage the habitat of the unique waterfowl populations that use the refuge “pure poppycock or goose you-know-what,” in a delegation press call Monday with Alaska reporters.

He added that he thought the Native corporation conceded too much in the previous proposal.

In summer, the 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, as well as other sensitive wildlife and waterfowl.

Walker also thanked the Legislature for approving $7.5 million in last year’s capital budget to jump-start construction of the road if it were ever approved, despite the state’s ongoing budget problems.

Last summer the state Department of Transportation assisted in survey work to help establish the specific road route. DOT has estimated construction to cost $30 million and the state is expected to largely fund the work. It is expected to take about a year and start in two or three years after design and other pre-construction work is completed.

In February 2017 the Alaska Legislature unanimously approved a resolution in support of a land transfer for building the single-lane gravel road between King Cove and Cold Bay.

Murkowski said she called Trump to thank him for his administration’s work, but was unsure if she’d get through. The president took her call informing him of the deal and spent roughly five minutes talking about King Cove.

“There’s not too many 950 population communities that are off the road system that the president has taken an interest in and he was quite pleased to learn that an agreement had been inked today,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said the delegation made Zinke “an honorary Alaskan today” after the agreement was signed. He also noted that President Donald Trump took a personal interest in the issue after a briefing on their priorities from the senators shortly after he took office and would periodically ask them about the status of the road.

“This is an Alaska issue in many, many ways,” Murkowski added. “This is more than just a 10-mile, one-lane, gravel, non-commercial use road. This is about how we provide a level of fairness and equity to those who are seeking a simple resolution to a way that they can gain safety at times when the elements do not allow for folks to travel safely by air or by boat.”

Leaders of the Alaska office of the Audubon Society said in a formal response that it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Izembek Refuge to migrating waterfowl and transferring public land to private hands epitomizes the Trump administration’s damaging resource management policies.

“The Izembek NWR is not your typical piece of Alaska. At times it supports the majority of the world’s populations of Emperor geese, Pacific black brant and the federally listed population of Steller’s eiders,” Audubon Alaska Executive Director Nils Warnock said. “There’s a reason the Interior Department decided against authorizing this road back in 2013. Izembek is too critical to wildlife to risk by having a road blasted through it.”

Audubon Alaska also alleged an “underlying commercial motivation” for the project in its statement.

And while the delegation has long stressed the road would be limited to emergency-use only, the land exchange signed Monday states the road will be used “primarily” for health and safety purposes “and generally for noncommercial purposes. The commercial transport of fish and seafood products, except by an individual or a small business, on any portion of the road shall be prohibited.”

Opponents have consistently argued building a road through wilderness-designated land would set a bad precedent nationwide. Additionally, Peter Pan Seafoods, which has a processing plant in King Cove, could end up using the road to further its business interests — an egregious reason to develop the area, they contend.

Murkowski said Peter Pan would be prohibited from the road but the deal does not restrict resident travel, which would be unreasonable.

“It’s recognized that if you’re a local fisherman and you’ve got some fish in the back of your truck we’re not going to prohibit you from accessing the road,” she described.

The Interior Department cites Section 1302 of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act for its authority to make the deal, but opposition groups are expected to challenge that authority in court.

Murkowski said she always prefers to take action via legislation — which would all but nullify avenues to sue — but going about the land swap administratively is a much quicker route.

“We want the Outside groups to refrain from litigating this. We are in the right legally,” Sullivan added.

The House passed a bill authorizing a land swap for the road in July, but it has not passed the Senate.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

01/24/2018 - 12:10pm