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King Cove gets approval from House and Senate

KING COVE, Alaska – Public officials and Native leaders from King Cove and the Aleutians East Borough are expressing appreciation to members of Congress and the Senate after both approved the Izembeck and Alaska Peninsula Refuge Enhancement Act.

The bill, which passed in the House with a vote of 285 – 140 and in the Senate 77 – 20 was part of the Omnibus Public Lands Package. The package contains more than 160 public land bills affecting all 50 states and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

According to their release, King Cove officials said the Enhancement Act would establish a process to increase the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 61,000 acres in exchange for a small gravel single-lane road corridor (206 acres) leading from the remote community of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, Alaska.

Aleutian members of the King Cove community have long expressed a desire to have a safe travel route from King Cove to Cold Bay, where medical facilities exist and travel in extreme winter conditions can be extremely dangerous by plane or hovercraft, which has proved cost prohibitive.

“We are so appreciative of all the work that Representative Don Young, R-Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, have put into this bill. Their staunch bipartisan support has allowed us to reach this milestone today. If all goes well, this bill will vastly improve the quality of life for the mostly Aleut (Alaska Native) people of King Cove by providing safe, reliable surface transportation,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack.

A look back Since August 2007, the Aleutians East Borough has operated commercial hovercraft service between the City of King Cove and the City of Cold Bay. However, mechanical problems and poor weather have combined to keep the hovercraft out of service much more than ever anticipated. Furthermore, the hovercraft is running at a net annual deficit of more than $1 million. Before a hovercraft was available in King Cove, transporting emergency medical patients from King Cove to Cold Bay during thick fog or a storm was impossible. Flights from King Cove’s unpaved airstrip are delayed or canceled about half of the time. There are no roads connecting King Cove to Cold Bay, where an all-weather airport is located. King Cove is often plagued by gale-force winds and dense fog. Sometimes Cold Bay – the body of water between King Cove and the City of Cold Bay – has 15 to 20 foot seas in the winter. Even with the hovercraft theoretically available, factors such as poor weather and mechanical malfunctions have prevented hovercraft service for days at a time. The Aleut people have lived in this remote area of the Alaska Peninsula for more than 4,000 years. There are more than 14 miles of roads traversing the Izembek Wilderness and another 35 miles in the Izembek Refuge, dating back to World War II when thousands of GIs traveled extensively throughout the area. In 1980, the federal government designated a major portion of the land that lies between King Cove and Cold Bay as wilderness, without consulting with the local Native population. That action prohibited the construction of a road between the two communities.

In 2006, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sent letters of support for the bill to Alaska’s Congressional Delegation. In June 2007, Young, Murkowski and former Sen. Ted Stevens introduced companion legislation authorizing Alaska’s and King Cove Corporation’s contribution to the Izembeck land exchange. Last fall, the Alaska Federation of Natives and the National Congress of American Indians weighed in, passing resolutions in favor of the land exchange bill.

“Governor Sarah Palin’s support of this bill has also been essential to making this legislation move forward. We want to thank her for her assistance. The state of Alaska is a fundamental partner in helping to accomplish this critical project,” said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss. “We also appreciate Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who agreed to sign on as a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. Both he, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, understand indigenous issues and have been very supportive of King Cove’s needs.”

Initially, the Senate approved the Izembeck land package in January. However, the House, falling short by two votes, failed to deliver a two-thirds majority to a group of disappointed King Cove officials.

In response to the failing of the bill, King Cove officials made compromises in the Enhancement Act, which would prohibit any commercial use of the road. Additionally, an environmental impact statement will be conducted before the land exchange will take place.

As a condition, the secretary of the interior must determine that the receipt of 61,000 acres in exchange for a small gravel single-lane road corridor totaling 206 acres to save lives of Aleutian residents is within the boundaries of public interest.

“We’re hopeful we can overcome these hurdles,” said Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the King Cove Corporation. “This issue has plagued our community for decades. Many people have died because they were unable to reach the airport in Cold Bay during poor weather. The King Cove Corporation has agreed to relinquish a massive amount of our valuable habitat. Even though this land represents who we are as indigenous people, if this helps to save lives and provides safe and dependable transportation to and from Cold Bay, it’s worth it. We are very grateful that we have made it this far.”

According to Weiss, “this is a win-win situation for everyone involved. The federal government will receive thousands of acres of new wilderness land; and this small road corridor will likely save many lives in the future – lives that represent our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

“We need a safe, reliable transportation option,” Mack said. “A road connection to Cold Bay would save lives. It’s the only workable, long-term solution.”