What others say: Saving lives in King Cove a worthy exception to wilderness rule

It appears the residents of King Cove will finally have a road built through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect their city to the all-weather airport at the neighboring city of Cold Bay. King Cove officials last week reached a deal with the Trump administration to exchange a couple hundred acres of land for access to build a one-lane gravel road through the protected wilderness. King Cove City Administrator Gary Hennigh told Alaska Public Media he expects the deal to be signed Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C.

 

King Cove is located at the southern end of the Alaska Peninsula, about 840 miles from Fairbanks. So why does this matter to Interior residents and people living in other regions of Alaska? In a state known for massive swaths of protected wilderness, allowing this road sets a new precedent that could impact future development in Alaska.

For the past 30 years, numerous government officials have fought for a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay, where an airport can be accessed in all weather conditions. Between the two cities lies the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which was created under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. Road access is usually prohibited in wilderness areas such as Izembek. Although it is one of the smaller wildlife refuges in Alaska, Izembek is one of the most diverse refuges in the state. It is a rich feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, including the entire population of Pacific black brant.

Some worry that the creation of a road that bisects the refuge would cause irreparable damage to this habitat. This is why then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel blocked the road from being constructed in 2013. It’s good policy to protect our designated wilderness, but what if that wilderness is isolating an entire community and putting lives at risk? It exemplifies how officials in Washington can dismiss the challenges of life in Alaska.

People in need of medical treatment have died as a result of flights being grounded by adverse weather in King Cove. Between 1980 and 1994, 12 people have died waiting for medevac services out of King Cove. Since Secretary Jewel blocked the road in 2013, more than 60 people have been evacuated from King Cove by plane or boat, many of these rescues were conducted by the Coast Guard.

Options other than the road have been explored, but King Cove officials and other politicians, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, argue that the road is the community’s best bet.

The Agdaagux tribe of Aluets has lived in the King Cove area for 4,000 years, long before Izembek was designated as protected wilderness in 1980. Unfortunately, this wilderness has hemmed in the community for more than three decades. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was right to make a land swap deal with the King Cove Corp. in exchange for the gravel road. The bottom line is the road will save lives and it should be built.

—Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Jan. 9, 2018

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