Alaskans blast Jewell decision to deny King Cove road

Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Interior Secretary Jewell put the biggest roadblock to date in front of an effort to build a route between the Aleutian villages of King Cove and Cold Bay Dec. 23 when she denied a land swap needed for the project.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski called Jewell’s decision an “insult” and “offensive” in a press conference immediately following the announcement.

“This is a disappointing decision, extremely disappointing to me, but I cannot imagine how disappointed the people of King Cove are that the secretary of (the) Interior, who came out, who listened to them, who visited with them, turned a deaf ear — absolute deaf ear to their request for a simple ask,” Murkowski said.

As proposed, the land exchange called for the federal government to turn over 206 acres in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge between King Cove and Cold Bay, along with 1,600 acres south of Kodiak, for 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres from King Cove Corp., the Alaska Native village corporation. The swap would give the state the right-of-way it needs to construct the road.

The proposed 11-mile, gravel, non-commercial, one-lane road would be built and maintained by the State of Alaska and the Aleutians East Borough, Murkowski said.

King Cove has a year-round population of about 960 residents. In recent history 12 people have died trying to get from King Cove to Cold Bay by boat or through the air, according to a borough statement.

“The lives of our people, our elders, children and grandchildren are at stake over this issue,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “Are birds really more important than people? It seems so hard to believe that the federal government finds it impossible to accommodate both wildlife and human beings. Is the Obama Administration turning its back on Native Americans?”

At longer than 10,000 feet, the all-weather Cold Bay airport has one of the longest civilian runways in the state and is the area’s main link to Anchorage. It was built by the military during World War II.

In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior agency, recommended that then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reject the land swap and road proposal. Salazar chose not to rule on the issue and confirmation of Jewell’s appointment to the post by the president was contingent on her visiting King Cove, according to Murkowski, which she did in August.

“After careful consideration, I support the Service’s conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it,” Jewell said in a department release.

“Izembek is an extraordinary place — internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species — and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness. I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”

In summer, the 315,000-acre refuge hosts 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant, a goose that breeds there, according to the department release.

Gov. Sean Parnell had lobbied for the land swap and subsequent road along with the Alaska’s congressional delegation and the local governments.

Murkowski received word of Jewell’s decision while shopping at  a Fred Meyer grocery store and said she had a “direct and terse” conversation with Jewell.

“She chose to announce (the King Cove decision) two days before Christmas because she was hoping that all of Alaskans would be doing what I was doing — and be out finishing up their Christmas shopping and getting our homes ready — doing what families do two days before the holidays,” Murkowski said. “But what she underestimated was that not only was I paying attention, I think all Alaskans were paying attention.

“This is emblematic of what’s going on with (the Obama) administration view of Alaska. They don’t think we can take care of our communities, our families and the land that we have.”

According to Murkowski, Jewell said work would be done on the dock in Cold Bay to make it safer and easier to offload people from boats.

Shortly after her visit to King Cove, Jewell said she had no timetable to make her ruling. There was no statutory timeline for the decision.

Sen. Mark Begich said in a statement he plans to introduce legislation to get the road built when Congress reconvenes in January.

“Even after visiting King Cove and hearing first-hand the tragic consequences of critically ill people being transported through 12-foot seas to get medical care, Washington (D.C.) bureaucrats have determined that the environmental impact of a single-lane road somehow outweighs the health of Alaskans. Today’s decision was disappointing but not surprising,” Begich said.

Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee that overseas Interior Department funding and said she plans to continue to push for the road.

In typical candid fashion, Rep. Don Young referenced Jewell’s decision as the “largest pile of horse manure ever delivered on Christmas,” in a release from his office.

Congress appropriated $37.5 million for King Cove transportation in 1997. That included a $9 million hovercraft operated by the Aleutians East Borough across Cold Bay. The borough eventually shut down the hovercraft saying it was too expensive and couldn’t handle rough water.

U.S. Coast Guard helicopters based in Kodiak were dispatched to King Cove five times in 2012 to transport people with medical emergencies during bad weather at a cost of $21,000 per trip, Murkowski said.

At her press conference, Murkowski said she was confident Jewell would rule in favor of the land swap during her Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year based on conversations she had with Salazar, Vice President Joe Biden and White House officials, but became less sure when the two visited King Cove together.

When asked if she regretted voting to approve Jewell, Murkowski said, “I do.”

She added, “I felt pretty sure that she was going to be one to find a positive path forward for the people of King Cove and this decision she has made today does not do that at all. Maybe I misjudged what kind of an individual we’re dealing with in the (Interior) secretary’s office.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

12/24/2013 - 10:31am