Birds More Important Than People? Feds Refuse Plea for Road Through Wildlife Refuge

Susan Jones | December 26, 2013 | 9:59am EST
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his undated photo released by the Aleutians East Borough shows the village of King Cove, Alaska.

( - Environmental priorities have trumped the medical concerns of a small Alaskan community.

After four years of study, the Obama administration has decided on that the isolated community of King Cove, Alaska may not build a 22-mile, single-lane gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the town of Cold Bay.

The decision, announced on Dec. 23 by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, has infuriated the people of King Cove, where the proposed road has been discussed since the 1980s.

The road would have given them access to emergency medical and other services by way of the all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

"Are birds really more important than people? It seems so hard to believe that the federal government finds it impossible to accommodate both wildlife and human beings," the Associated Press quoted Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack as saying.

The proposed deal included a lopsided land swap: In exchange for using 200 acres within the wildlife refuge for road construction, the State of Alaska and the King Cove Corporation offered to add 55,000 acres to the Izembek Refuge.

But Interior Department refused the deal: "While the over 55,000 acres offered contain important wildlife habitat, they do not provide the wildlife diversity of the internationally recognized wetland habitat of the Izembek isthmus," the final Environmental Impact Statement said. "Simply exchanging lands will not compensate for myriad ripple effects on habitat and wildlife due to uses on and beyond the road, nor would new lands provide habitat for all the same species."

“We’ve undertaken a robust and transparent public process to review the matter from all sides, and I have personally visited the Refuge and met with the King Cove and Cold Bay communities to gain a better understanding of their concerns,” said Jewell. “After careful consideration, I support the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service’s conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it."

Jewell called Izembek "an extraordinary place," and she said "we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness."

Jewell said she understands the concerns about reliable medical transportation but she concluded that other modes of transportation could be improved to meet the needs of the community.

“We will continue to work with the State of Alaska and local communities to support viable alternatives to ensure continued transportation and infrastructure improvements for the health and safety of King Cove residents,” Jewell said.

The Anchorage Daily News noted that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) supported the road project, and even threatened to hold up Jewell's confirmation after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended against building it.

"I am angry. I am disappointed. I am frustrated. I am sad for the people of King Cove," the newspaper quoted Murkowski as saying. "Four thousand miles from where they're sitting, somebody has said you can't have a 10-mile, one-lane, non-commercial-use road so you can access the second longest runway in the state of Alaska to get out for medical reasons."

According to the Interior Department, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960, serves as vital habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl – including 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant -- along with grizzly bear, caribou and salmon.  The refuge also contains "internationally significant eelgrass beds," lagoons, wetlands and hundreds of thousands of federally-protected waterfowl and shorebirds.

"These species are important subsistence resources for Native Alaskans. A road would have permanently bisected the isthmus, where most of the Refuge’s 315,000 acres of congressionally designated wilderness are located," the Interior Department said.

"By designating this area as wilderness in 1980, the most protective category of public lands, Congress recognized the need to protect Izembek as a place where natural processes prevail with few signs of human presence," Jewell's news release said.

Prodded by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, Congress in 1998 provided over $37.5 million in federal funding as an alternative to a road through the Izembek Refuge and Izembek Wilderness. The funding upgraded the medical clinic, improved the King Cove airstrip, and created a transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay via an unpaved road from King Cove to a hovercraft and terminal. But hovercraft service between King Cove and Cold Bay was halted in 2010.

Since the road will not be built, an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry eventually may be used as a replacement for hovercraft service.

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