Becky Bohrer
Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — As in most of the country, advanced medical care is available only in regional hubs or cities in Alaska. From the tip of the Alaska Peninsula and the eastern Aleutian Islands, it’s a 600-mile flight to medical specialists in Anchorage.

The first 20 miles of such a trip are the most difficult for residents of King Cove. That’s because King Cove is not connected by road to an all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

Weather permitting, it’s a short flight or an hour-long boat ride. However, in bad weather, small planes are grounded and the trip by boat might take two-to-three hours in 15-to-20 foot seas – if it’s even possible to get a boat across Cold Bay. Weather in the area is notoriously unpredictable.

For 20 years King Cove residents have been lobbying to get a 30-mile road built between King Cove and Cold Bay, with 11 miles of that crossing the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Emperor geese in flight, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, AK. (Photo: K. Mueller, US Fish and Wildlife Service, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Local governments support it, including the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, as does the King Cove village corporation. The National Congress of American Indians, statewide Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska’s Congressional delegation and the state of Alaska are in favor of the road.

Congress passed a law in 2009 directing the Department of Interior to look into making a land trade so the road could get built. Interior secretaries under the Obama and Trump administrations have opposed and then supported the road. The Biden administration initially supported it. But a U.S. government attorney said Wednesday in court that Secretary Deb Haaland has not decided the position she will take on a proposed land exchange needed for the road.

Michael T. Gray, a Justice Department attorney, told a federal appeals court panel Haaland planned to review the record and visit King Cove before making a decision. He said the position he was arguing had not been “taken back in any way.”

Google Earth image of King Cove, Izembek, Cold Bay, Alaska.

Gray last month sent a letter to the clerk of court for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stating that Haaland was expected to visit King Cove in September. The letter outlined the position that a decision on whether to enter into a land exchange agreement was a policy call on which different Interior secretaries could reach different conclusions, “even on the same record.”

Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw on Wednesday called the letter “perplexing.”

She pressed Gray for a timeline and said going forward with the case seemed a “tremendous ask” of the judiciary while Haaland was deciding what position to take.

Gray later said he would not oppose a stay of proceedings. But an attorney for the state, Sean Lynch, expressed concerns with a stay. The state has supported the position defending the land exchange, and Lynch said he believed King Cove Corp., another intervenor in the case, would oppose a stay.

King Cove residents have long sought a land connection through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport. Supporters of the effort see it as a life and safety issue.

The refuge, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, contains an internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl.

Google Earth image of Alaska, U.S., King Cove

In 2013, Interior Department officials declined a land exchange, with then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling the refuge an “extraordinary place” and saying she supported the conclusion that building a road through the refuge would cause “irreversible damage.”

Under the Trump administration, efforts to move forward with a land exchange faced legal challenges, including the current case, brought by a coalition of conservation groups.

A federal judge last year set aside a proposed 2019 agreement between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation. The judge found in part that then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had failed to provide adequate reasoning to support a change in policy in favor of a land exchange and road.

Conservation groups also said the agreement did not include a provision limiting use of a road to health and safety purposes.

Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz could not provide details Wednesday of any travel plans by Haaland. But Schwartz, by email, confirmed that Haaland had not made a final decision regarding a position on the land exchange issue. She said Haaland had told Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski she would travel to Alaska to inform that decision.

Murkowski has supported road access, which she has said would provide “a lifeline for emergency medical care.”

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National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story.