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Interior sides with environmentalists, denies road through Alaskan refuge
The Obama administration handed environmentalists a significant victory Monday when the Interior Department decided against allowing a road to be built through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, dashing the hopes of locals who said the route was critical for safety.
Alaskans who live in King Cove, which is on the Bering Sea, had said that without the road, they have to rely on air and boat service for emergencies, and both of those can be shut down because of bad weather.
But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she is convinced those alternatives are better than building a road through an area designated wilderness, which means it is supposed to be free of manmade structures.
“Building a road through the refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it,” Ms. Jewell said in announcing her final rejection of the road project. “Izembek is an extraordinary place — internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species — and 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.”
Local officials were devastated by the decision.
“How heartless can a person get?” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack, in an emailed statement. “When will she realize that a human life is more important than an animal/bird? … Hearing the real life stories of loved ones that have died because they were unable to get to Cold Bay should have been enough to approve the land exchange.”
The mayor said the road is the only viable option, but Ms. Jewell promised to work with local residents to try to come up with something else, and said the state and locality are free to try their own improvements, so long as they don’t affect the wildlife refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had initially rejected the road early this year, but then-Secretary Ken Salazar promised a full review of that decision in light of local residents’ complaints. Ms. Jewell, who took over for Mr. Salazar in April, followed through.
She traveled out to the spot in August and, according to local news reports, was given a tour by medical staff who said the road was important because it connected to an all-weather airport about 25 miles away, where patients can fly out at any time.
Under the deal that had been considered, Alaska would offer to swap other land in exchange for being able to build the road in the wilderness preserve.
Environmentalists have been mounting a fierce campaign against the road, including flooding the federal agency with comments arguing that building the road would be like “removing the biological heart” of the refuge.
They said Congress created the wildlife refuge to protect certain plant and animal species and allowing the road would be going back on that commitment. The groups said the wildlife refuge is a critical stopping point for migratory birds.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, however, had been supportive of the road and Ms. Jewell’s decision will likely draw criticism from some parts of Capitol Hill. In 2009, Congress authorized the possibility of a land-swap to build the road — though the final decision was left up to the department and its scientific judgment.
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