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King Cove road bid reopens an old dispute

WASHINGTON - Like many of the issues that affect Alaska Natives, the proposed gravel road between the state's King Cove and Cold Bay communities begins with geography. Located on the westernmost edge of the Alaska Peninsula, the communities face fearsome weather for air travel. Dense fog, high winds, ice, snow and cold, as well as wind sheer, have spelled death for 11 air travelers in flying accidents between the two communities since 1979.

Cold Bay, built during World War II, hosts a year-round jet airstrip at the state's third-longest runway. Cold Bay essentially exists to service and provision jet operations there. King Cove, an Aleutian community, is 20 to 25 air miles away, but inclement weather often grounds its propeller craft. Emergency travel is always a worry; according to testimony before the House of Representatives' Natural Resources Committee on Oct. 31, pregnant women from King Cove arrange to be in Anchorage six to nine weeks before their due date, lest weather ground them when it really counts.

A gravel road between King Cove and Cold Bay has been in discussion for years, but it would have to be built through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a designated wilderness area. In fact, it would have to traverse a narrow isthmus between two lagoons that serve as a habitat and feeding grounds for goose species, including most of the planet's Pacific black brant. Road foes insisted Oct. 31 that vehicular traffic would repeatedly flush bird species from eelgrass feeding beds, wasting their energy as they build up strength for the long flight to Mexico for the winter.

The environmental impact of the road has been studied at least three times, according to several witnesses, always with a finding that it is the most impactful of several alternatives.

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To overcome the environmental objections, King Cove and its allies, including Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican and ranking minority member of the committee, have introduced the Izembeck and Alaska Peninsula Refuge and Wildlife Enhancement and King Cove Safe Access Act, H.R. 2801 in the House. The bill proposes a land swap: 61,723 acres of Alaska state and King Cove Corporation land, with 45,493 acres designated as wilderness, in return for a 206-acre road corridor through the Izembek refuge and a 1,600-acre island that is soon to be surplused by the Coast Guard.

Opponents of the road were unmoved. ''The proposed land exchange would add acreage to the refuge, but not wildlife value,'' said Nicole Whittington-Evans, associate regional director and Alaska Refuge program director of the Wilderness Society's Alaska office. Few of the acres offered in exchange for the Izembek road corridor are environmentally threatened or candidates for development, she explained, while the three-mile-wide isthmus between lagoons and the immediate watersheds ''make up the ecological heart of the refuge.''

Opponents of the road also pointed out that it still would make for a long haul in winter for medical patients, besides being hard to build and expensive to maintain.

And one other thing repeatedly brought up by opponents of the road: In the words of David Raskin, president of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, ''This legislation is a solution in search of a problem.'' In 1998, Congress appropriated $37.5 million to link King Cove and Cold Bay via road and hovercraft dock. The Suna-X hovercraft, the largest of its kind ever built in the United States, operates successfully today. ''Further, the new medical clinic in King Cove provides an added level of security to deal with medical emergencies.''

Raskin added, ''If the issue is funding the operation of the hovercraft, we suggest that King Cove and AEB [Aleutian East Borough] officially request that the state of Alaska maintain the hovercraft just as they do for the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway System. ... If a physician is needed at King Cove, that is a different, effective and less costly problem to solve than to build the proposed road. We have offered to assist the citizens of King Cove to solve that problem.''