EDITORIAL: State is right to join suit over King Cove road

The long and perplexing dispute over the proposed one-lane gravel road through a portion of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula has just become a heavyweight fight.

Gov. Sean Parnell on June 30 announced the state has filed a motion in federal court asking to join a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over her December refusal to approve a congressionally sanctioned land exchange that would allow construction of the road between King Cove and the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. The lawsuit was brought by the city of King Cove, the Aleutians East Borough and three Alaska Native entities in early June.

Gov. Parnell’s decision, which follows through on the intent he announced in April, is the right course of action.

The road — 11 miles of which would go through the refuge — has been sought by King Cove residents for two decades as a means to have safe access to the Cold Bay airport.

Volatile weather regularly makes King Cove’s airport unusable, leaving people in need of advance medical care shut in or needing to be flown out by the Coast Guard when the situation becomes an emergency. The Coast Guard has been summoned to King Cove five times this year to airlift people in need of medical aid.

The governor’s action is proper not only because the health and safety of people are at risk but also because such disregard from Interior Department officials can potentially happen elsewhere in Alaska. Alaska is standing up for its rights.

The state makes both points in its court filing requesting to intervene in the case on behalf of King Cove:

“[T]he State has an interest in ensuring that its citizens and communities are provided reasonable access across the vast federal landholdings in the State. In this case, the health and safety purposes of such access over the Izembek Refuge are literally of life and death importance.”

What’s puzzling about this whole situation is that the federal government would clearly benefit from the land exchange — and the secretary even acknowledged that fact in her December rejection of the idea. Under the swap, the federal government would receive 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of King Cove Corp. land, all to be added to the Izembek refuge.

The refuge would give up 206 acres.

Secretary Jewell, supported on the issue by several national environmental organizations, chose instead to agree with personnel from the Fish and Wildlife Service, who said the road would be too disruptive to the area’s habitat.

Residents of King Cove make what should be a convincing argument to the contrary — that absence of the road has brought death and injury to their community.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of several Alaska leaders trying to sway distant Washington officials about the need for the road, notes that 19 people have died in plane crashes coming to or departing from King Cove or because they couldn’t get to medical care in a timely manner. Residents have to travel to Anchorage, 600 miles away, for many medical procedures.

Secretary Jewell has been showing a certain aloofness to the situation and to the state. She hasn’t responded to several requests, including from the Alaska Legislature, to reconsider her decision, and she hasn’t even responded to a letter sent to her by King Cove residents in April.

Let’s hope the weight of a legal filing from the state of Alaska will get her attention and prompt her to reconsider her denial of this road, which is so essential for the health and safety of the small community of King Cove and which is becoming increasingly indicative of how the federal government views Alaska.

07/10/2014 - 10:07am