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Policy factors favor proposed land swap

Posted: September 17, 2013 - 10:37am

SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR SALLY JEWELL offered some worrisome words last week after visiting King Cove and talking to the residents about their desire for a 12-mile road that links their village with the runway at Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. Secretary Jewell will make the final decision about a proposed land swap that would allow the road to be built.

“The issue that I’m facing is one that is legal in its interpretation,” she said.

Yes, there are legal standards to follow in the process leading up to her decision, but more legal analyses can’t answer the question before her: What’s best for the village and refuge? On balance, the land swap is.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after writing an environmental impact statement on the proposed land trade, disagreed. It concluded earlier this year that executing the swap would not advance the purposes of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The analysis was informed by a great deal of scientific information about the refuge. In addition, a great cloud of statutes and court decisions creates legal guidance for the agency to follow when writing such environmental impact statements.

In the end, though, it’s a policy decision, and Secretary Jewell must make it. It’s extremely unlikely that a judge would overturn her decision on any legal grounds.

In deciding, the secretary simply must weigh the pros and cons of the land swap and road.

First, the “cons.” The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, documented how valuable the area is for black brant geese and other wildlife. It’s a unique place, without a doubt. The agency concluded that a road through the isthmus would harm these populations.

Given that the refuge is already criss-crossed by roads — roads used for decades by birdwatchers and hunters at several privately owned lodges without harming the wildlife populations — the agency’s opposition boiled down to this: Its staff believes that King Cove residents would tear around the refuge’s most important and sensitive wildlife habitat on four-wheelers if a road gave them easier access to those areas.

In response to public comments, the agency defended that conclusion with this explanation: “The analysis presented in the EIS was based on previous experience of the authors and reviewed by staff familiar with the area and other areas in rural Alaska.”

That brings us to the “pros,” which, ironically, are best introduced by quoting the agency’s own words again: “It is impossible to quantify the amount of human use (i.e., hunting, fishing, etc.) or illegal off-road vehicle use that would occur adjacent to the road if it is built.”

So the danger to the refuge is a non-quantifiable best guess by experienced personnel, not a scientific certainty upon which to base some legally mandatory conclusion.

Add to this a stack of additional arguments favoring the road: The federal refuge would receive 56,000 acres of pristine state and Native corporation land in exchange for the 206-acre road right of way. Residents would get access to a 10,000-foot runway at Cold Bay, which could serve King Cove as an emergency backup during the approximately 100 days per year when wind and weather shuts down its own mountain-bracketed airstrip. The road likely would be paid for by the state of Alaska, not federal taxpayers, and state officials have confirmed the road could be kept open during bad weather. Without that road access, federal taxpayers sometimes have paid for Coast Guard helicopters to fly from Kodiak during emergencies, costing up to $200,000 per trip.

It’s unfortunate that so much federal money has been spent on failed alternative solutions, such as a hovercraft that didn’t work well and cost too much to run. The right thing to do today, though, is to approve the land swap and so allow the road. It’s the secretary’s call.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Sept. 8

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