Last month the isolated Aleutian Islands community of King Cove, Alaska, received a major boost in its 30+ years fight for a life-saving link to roads in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that would connect them to the nearest all-weather airport, which is 25 miles away in Cold Bay.
U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young introduced identical bills in both chambers of Congress, S. 3204 and H.R. 5777, calling for an equal-value land transfer in exchange for a single-lane, non-commercial road between King Cove and Cold Bay Airport.
“We are profoundly grateful to Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, Congressman Don Young, Alaska Governor Bill Walker and the Alaska Legislature for their long-standing support of our needs,” said Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the King Cove (Native) Corporation in a press release. “We have said over and over that we won’t give up until this becomes a reality. Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congressman Don Young have demonstrated to us that they won’t give up on us either. Words cannot adequately express our appreciation.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski meeting with Native Youth in 2013 - Photo Vincent Schilling
Situated between two massive volcanic mountains on the edge of a Pacific bay, travel from King Cove by air or boat has always been dangerous for seriously ill or injured medevac patients and rescue personnel due to severe weather conditions common to the area. Residents in need of emergency treatment currently need to fly to Cold Bay Airport first and then onwards the nearest medical facilities 625 miles away in Anchorage.
“This is and always has been a human rights issue,” said Henry Mack, the Mayor of King Cove in the release. “Building a small, gravel road will ensure that we will have a dependable lifeline to safety instead of putting patients and rescue personnel at risk while waiting for the weather to improve. When an emergency happens, every second counts.”
Congress and President Obama approved the road and a 61,000 acre land swap (from the State of Alaska and the King Cove Corporation) in 2009 in exchange for a 206-acre, single-lane gravel road corridor. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued an order rejecting the road and land exchange December 23, 2013 citing environmental concerns.
In 2014 King Cove tribes, the corporation, the city and the Aleutians East Borough (the King Cove Group) sued Secretary Jewell and other Federal officials. In June 2015, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies approved Senator Murkowski’s legislative language directing the Interior Department to do an equal-value land transfer to allow the construction of the connector road. The language was not included in the final year-end budget deal. In September of that year, U.S. District Court Judge Holland ruled against the King Cove Group and determined there was no violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act (OPLMA). The judge also dismissed similar claims by the State of Alaska as an intervenor in the case. However, the judge did acknowledge that Secretary Jewell based her decision solely on the environmental impacts of the road and ignored the public health and safety impacts.
Since Secretary Jewell’s rejection there have been 46 medevacs, 17 of which involved the Coast Guard. Senator Murkowski told the Washington Examiner in April that many of the medevac trips since that time involved waiting for adverse weather conditions to pass; this can be several hours or days.
Everyone involved except federal authorities and environmental groups views the land exchange as a necessary compromise for the State of Alaska and its Native people who see the road as vital to the health and safety of King Cove's 1,000 residents. In that same report Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott pointedly observed that the Department of the Interior had “essentially decided to prioritize the hypothetical harm to birds and animals over the very real harm to the residents of King Cove.” King Cove’s airport is shut down due to bad weather an average 100 days annually.
“We are hopeful that this long-fought battle for safe, reliable transportation access will soon be over,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack in the press release. “We just want to have what most Americans take for granted – the ability to get to a hospital safely when medical emergencies occur.”
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