Hearings planned on proposed road in Alaska refuge

ANCHORAGE (AP) — The Pacific brant is a small sea goose that likes to forage a mile or more offshore, far from bluffs, where eagles launch attacks from the air. Brant are also herbivores, and to get enough calories, must eat during nearly 80 percent of its waking hours.

So it's no surprise that Pacific brant migrating from breeding grounds to Baja Mexico choose to lard up at Izembek Lagoon, 10 miles of shallow, sheltered ocean near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, the long finger of land at the start of the Aleutian Islands. The lagoon offers protection from predators and a giant buffet — one of the world's largest beds of nutritious eelgrass.

Virtually the entire 150,000 population of Pacific brant stops at Izembek. So do 70 percent of migrating Steller's eiders, an endangered species that eats tiny invertebrates — clams, shrimp, and copepods — clinging to eelgrass leaves. So it's also no surprise that environmentalists are fighting a proposal by an Aleut village to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for land access to an all-weather airport.

"It's really kind of this gathering place for these enormous numbers of birds," says Beth Peluso of Audubon Alaska. "It's such a rich area and it's fairly unique. It's the size of the eelgrass beds that are drawing a lot of these birds, so you just can't switch it for some habitat somewhere else because it's not equivalent."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins hearings this week on a draft environmental review of road proposals for King Cove, home to one of the largest salmon canneries in Alaska. Access to the community of 948 is by sea or air — if a plane can make it onto the 3,500-foot gravel runway. Surrounded by mountains, and often besieged by strong wind, scheduled flights are delayed or canceled 50 percent of the time, according to the Aleutians East Borough.

In medical emergencies, patients' lives depend on getting to nearby Cold Bay and its all-weather airport. In the last 14 months, there were 21 emergency flights for villagers, said Agdaagux Tribe spokeswoman Della Trumble. That means a white-knuckle ride on a fishing boat, or if harbors are iced in, a call to the U.S. Coast Guard on Kodiak Island 425 miles away for an emergency helicopter flight.

A better solution, according to villagers, state officials and Alaska's congressional delegation, is a road.

Five access options under review include two configurations of a single-lane gravel road from King Cove to Cold Bay that crosses nine miles of refuge. King Cove residents acknowledge the wildlife — they've depended on subsistence resources for decades — but in the debate between birds and human health, believe people should be getting more consideration, said city manager Gary Hennigh.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials, Hennigh said, have become indignant on the occasions when he summarizes his perspective with a question: "Just how many tundra swans equal one dead Aleut?"

"That is basically the theme that is going to keep coming back around, that this is for the human environment of the people in King Cove," he said.

Pacific brant were the rallying cry against the road five years ago, Hennigh said. Studies have indicated the effect of the road will be negligible and minimal, he said, so the focus has shifted to other species.

"All the hype and crap that we went through about the black brant, the Steller's eider, the tundra swan, the caribou, the bear, we are now confident that the final environmental impact statement will say these are not going to be that big of an impact," he said.

Federal officials thought they had a road alternative in place 14 years ago. Congress in 1998 appropriated $37.5 million to improve King Cove access. The centerpiece was a $9 million hovercraft, but the Aleutians East Borough announced in November it was grounding the big boat. It cost more than $1 million annually and didn't come close to operating six days per week as promised, Hennigh said, mostly because of dangerous waves.

Congress in 2009 reopened the door for a road. It authorized the secretary of the Interior Department to exchange lands within Izembek refuge a single-lane gravel road if the secretary concluded it was in the public interest. The only commercial use would be taxis, Hennigh said, and 15 to 20 vehicles per day are likely to use it.

The village and the state of Alaska are willing to pay a steep price in land. The federal government would give up about 200 acres of Izembek refuge for the road corridor and 1,600 acres on Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak. In return, the federal government would receive more than 56,000 acres — 43,093 from the state north of the refuge and 13,300 acres from King Cove's village Native corporation.

Ultimately, the Interior secretary will decide if a land exchange and road is in the public interest based on Fish and Wildlife Service environmental review. The agency's first hearing is Thursday in Anchorage.

Environmentalists don't like the precedent set by allowing a road in a refuge. They question whether traffic limits will be enforced. Despite the whopping difference in acreage of the exchange, Peluso said, not all habitat is equal.

"It doesn't mean it has the same qualities," Peluso said. "The reason why Izembek is important is that it has this specific habitat, and you can't just draw another line somewhere else. It doesn't have the same thing."

Trumble said King Cove was not consulted over creation of the refuge. Her sympathies are with patients who have to endure a boat ride across heaving sea water and a walk or a trip by stretcher up an icy dock on top of their medical condition.

"It's very dangerous," she said. "It's very uncomfortable for the patient, adding on to the problems that they're going through, without having to go through that extra stress of being offloaded in Cold Bay, or a bad boat ride to Cold Bay."


04/30/2012 - 6:52am