ANCHORAGE — The state of Alaska announced Monday it will sue the federal government to open a road through a national wildlife refuge so that residents of a village will have improved access for emergency flights at an all-weather airport.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in December rejected a proposed land swap that would have allowed a one-lane gravel road through Izembek (EYE’-zem-bek) National Wildlife Refuge to connect King Cove with Cold Bay, two communities at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula near the start of the Aleutian Chain.
The road is proposed for an isthmus along the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, home to world’s largest known bed of eelgrass, which provides fodder to migratory waterfowl — such as Pacific brant and endangered Steller’s eiders — as they head south for the winter.
The road would connect King Cove, a village of about 1,000, where strong winds and nasty weather often make flying dangerous, to Cold Bay, a former military facility with Alaska’s third-longest runway.
Gov. Sean Parnell said the federal government’s failure to approve a road was “unconscionable.”
“In just the last several weeks, serious health-related evacuations have shown just how critical a road for medical evacuations is for residents,” Parnell said in a prepared statement.
The grounds for the lawsuit, Parnell said, would be the Mining Act of 1866, which grants rights of ways based on historic use.
Environmental groups strongly oppose an Izembek road for the precedent it would set in refuges and for damage it would create in what’s acknowledged as world-class migratory bird habitat.
Jewell in December noted that the proposed land swap would be an acreage gain for the federal government. In exchange for 206 acres in Izembek and 1,600 acres in a refuge south of Kodiak, the federal government would receive 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of private land. However, she agreed with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife analysis that concluded that more was not better. The exchange could not compensate for the unique values of existing refuge lands or the anticipated effects a road on the refuge, she said.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has portrayed the issues as a birds-versus-people fight and has vowed to take all steps necessary to reverse the decision.
Congress in 1997 addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took the vessel out of service after deciding it was unreliable and too expensive to operate.
Noticed of intent to sue is required 180 days before the lawsuit can be filed.