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A Life-and-Death Issue for Alaska’s Aleut

The Aleut of King Cove, Alaska want safe, reliable access to medical care – something nearly all other Americans already have and often take for granted. All that is needed is a one-lane, 11-mile dirt road through a corner of a federal wildlife refuge, which would ensure that residents can always reach the nearby all-weather airport in Cold Bay.

To most of us, the road is common sense and desperately needed. To the federal government, it is not worth building.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected – two days before Christmas – a proposal that would have allowed a road in exchange for more than 56,000 acres of tribal and state lands being added to the refuge, including the first new federal wilderness in Alaska in decades. It was a 300-to-1 deal in favor of the federal government, and by far our best option to protect the health and safety of local residents.

Secretary Jewell claims the short road would irreversibly harm wildlife and that new wilderness was not an acceptable substitute. Jewell’s message to me has been that I needed to ‘just get over it and move on.’

A better understanding of what is at stake – and at risk – shows the breathtaking absurdity of Secretary Jewell’s decision. 

When the federal government created the Izembek refuge 54 years ago, it severed the traditional land route between King Cove and Cold Bay. The 965 residents of King Cove, who are forced to rely on a treacherous smaller airstrip cut into the side of a mountain, have been trying to reestablish road access to Cold Bay’s all-weather airport ever since.

Over the past 30 years, 19 deaths have been attributed to the lack of a road, either because of plane crashes or residents’ inability to reach medical treatment in time. King Cove’s airstrip is closed by bad weather more than 100 days a year on average. Nearly 40 percent of the flights not canceled are interrupted by wind and turbulence, fog, rain, or snow squalls. By comparison, the Cold Bay airport is closed an average of 10 days a year.

A survey of King Cove residents found that medical treatment is their number one reason for travel. Almost 60 percent reported having a family member denied access to emergency medical care because of weather-related delays. With only a small clinic and no full-time physician, residents must travel more than 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures, including childbirth.

When weather conditions halt flights, it is often the Coast Guard that must step in and rescue King Cove residents with medical emergencies. I commend the bravery of the crews who lead those missions – but question why we must needlessly risk their lives, as well. 

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The recent evacuation of a 63-year-old woman suffering from heart failure offers a stark example. With 70-mile-an-hour wind gusts and near zero visibility, a Coast Guard helicopter was forced to operate near its limits to pick up the patient.

Calling in the Coast Guard is as expensive as it is dangerous, with a single evacuation costing taxpayers as much as $210,000.

Another argument made against the road is that it would set a bad precedent. Yet there are already 4,900 miles of roads in “refuges, waterfowl production areas, and hatcheries” throughout the country. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proudly displays photos of several of them on its “Roads and Trails Program” webpage.

The Izembek refuge itself contains nearly 70 miles of roads built during World War II, many of which are still used today by the Fish and Wildlife Service and hunters who visit privately owned hunting lodges in Cold Bay.

You may wonder: how can a small road irreparably harm wildlife in a refuge that allows hunting? It’s a fair question. 

The refuge actively promotes its world-class waterfowl hunting opportunities and has some of the highest daily sport hunting bag limits anywhere – 31 birds per day, per hunter. The ptarmigan limit is another 20 birds per day.

When Secretary Jewell rejected the King Cove road, she ignored all of these factors: need, history, and perspective. She also ignored the Interior Department’s trust responsibility to our nation’s First Peoples. Jewell promised to find a viable alternative – but two months later, she’s done nothing, leaving the people of King Cove to live in fear of being trapped during a medical emergency.

The Aleut of King Cove are asking for 11 miles of road needed to protect lives. Yes, the road would run through a very small portion of a very large refuge. But the Aleut stewarded that area for thousands of years before the federal government came along. The federal government doesn’t need to protect the area from them. It should learn from the Aleut’s example, and respect them by allowing the road to be built. 

Linda Murkowski is a republican U.S. senator representing Alaska.