Seeking a safe travel route in Alaska

Isolated residents of King Cove want a connection to Cold Bay

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Residents of King Cove, Alaska, have long been isolated from their sister community of Cold Bay. All they are asking for is a safe road to connect the two cities.

Cold Bay holds Alaska;s third largest airport and provides a level of access to health care that is not available to residents to the small community of King Cove. Community members feel the ability to travel to and from Cold Bay is crucial.

Officials, tribal leaders and residents in the city of King Cove expressed appreciation to the Alaska Congressional Delegation, the state and Gov. Sarah Palin after the introduction of a promising bill to Congress. The bill would add a single-lane road leading from King Cove to Cold Bay in exchange for a considerable amount of wildlife habitat that would be allocated to the Izembeck and Alaska Peninsula national wildlife refuges.

The Izembeck and Alaska Peninsula Refuge and Wilderness Enhancement Act (Senate Bill 1680 and House Bill 2801) proposes offering more than 61,000 acres to the federal government from the King Cove Corporation and state of Alaska in exchange for a small, 206-acre portion of land that traverses the Izembeck National Wildlife Refuge - the amount necessary for safe travel on a road that would lead to Cold Bay.

King Cove is a community that sits dangerously between numerous volcanoes and high mountains, and high winds or heavy fog plague its small airstrip. The situation can be critical if people are seriously injured or experience life-threatening illness. Since 1979, 11 people have died when flying during questionable weather.

More than 80 percent of residents living in King Cove are Aleut. In 1980, the federal government designated the land between King Cove and Cold Bay as wilderness without consulting the indigenous Aleut people who have lived in the area for more than 4,000 years. This prohibited the construction of any roads between the two towns.

The 61,000+ acres would be added to the Izembeck and Alaska Peninsula wildlife refuges, and would add 41,000 acres of new wilderness. Such an amount has never before been offered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will transfer 206 acres for the road, whose construction would be funded by the state of Alaska's annual statewide transportation improvement program.

According to King Cove Corporation President Della Trumble, ''The road would provide a safer, reliable and economically feasible solution for the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.''

But as of yet, the road has not been approved.

For many years, King Cove officials and residents have been trying unsuccessfully to get approval for the road. According to King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss, ''This is a win-win for everyone involved. The people of King Cove would get reliable access to Cold Bay with minimum impact to the environment, while thousands of acres of valuable land are added to the refuge and to the wilderness.''

In 1998, a similar measure with less land offered was rejected due to the lobbying of conservation groups. However, an alternate compromise was given. Officials were given 10 minutes to decide.

King Cove officials accepted the plan in 1998 with the compromise of significant improvements to the King Cove Medical Clinic, airport and a hovercraft transport system.

Although appreciated, this has done little to provide security to King Cove residents. Some residents have been helped, but officials assert that the airport is only viable 60 - 70 percent of the time due to extreme weather conditions. The hovercraft also has significant weather constraints: It is unable to operate in winds of greater than 30 mph and functions at a net operating loss of 1.5 million annually.

''We deserve this road,'' Weiss said. ''The people of King Cove only want permission to have access to a right-of-way road leading to the world-class airfield in Cold Bay. Our access problem can be solved easily.

''Since 1980, the people of King Cove have been seeking a solution to this access problem; it has caused a lot of heartache. When poor weather prevents travel by air or boat, transporting people out of the community for essential medical care is absolutely impossible. This legislation will solve that problem.

''At the same time, the federal government is gaining a tremendous amount of valuable wilderness land to add to the refuge. It's beneficial for everyone concerned.''

Officials had hoped for a markup of the bill to the latter part of July; now they are hopeful for a September review.

''It has been passed through the House [of Representatives] process. We need it to go through the Senate Energy Committee,'' Trumble noted.

''We deserve safe and reliable access just like everybody else in the United States,'' she added. ''We're hopeful this legislation will finally give us a solution to this access problem. The Aleut have been good stewards to these lands for over 4,000 years. We feel the government has a trust responsibility to these same people and they need to recognize our needs for safe transportation.''

To show support of this initiative, write to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, 304 Dirksen Senate Building, Washington, DC 20510; or call (202) 224-4971.