Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell announced Monday that the state will sue the Obama administration to allow construction of a 10-mile road to give residents of a remote fishing village access to emergency medical flights at an all-weather airport.
Residents of King Cove, Alaska, were outraged in December when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell nixed a plan for a land swap that would have allowed the building of an unpaved road between the small town and the airport at Cold Bay.
Environmentalists had lobbied the Interior Department to stop the proposal, arguing that a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge could jeopardize the world’s largest known bed of eelgrass, which is used as fodder by migratory birds.
“In just the last several weeks, serious health-related evacuations have shown just how critical a road for medical evacuations is for residents,” the Republican governor said in a statement.
“The State continues to explore all potential avenues to help the people of King Cove. The notice of intent to sue relates to one option the State is evaluating, but the fastest and surest way to provide emergency medical access for King Cove residents is for Secretary Jewell to reconsider her decision placing the possible temporary disturbance of birds above the health and safety of Alaskans.”
Ms. Jewell announced her decision two days before Christmas, saying 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.”
“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,” she said.
Since Ms. Jewell rejected the land swap, which would have given the refuge 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of private land in exchange for 206 acres of federal land, King Cove has required eight emergency medical flights to Cold Bay, including five conducted by Coast Guard medevac.
Mr. Parnell said the lawsuit would be based on the Mining Act of 1866, which allows states to assert a right of way based on historic use. States must give 180 days’ notice before filing such a lawsuit, according to the governor’s press release.
Last month, a visibly agitated Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, criticized Ms. Jewell for her decision and vowed to fight it at the Interior Department appropriations hearing, giving a nod to the late Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican.
“When Ted was really agitated and really going to let nothing stand in his way, he would wear his [Incredible] Hulk tie,” she said. “Today, I have a Hulk scarf on. And I don’t typically engage in much drama.”
Nineteen Alaskans have died attempting to fly out of King Cove, whose airstrip is frequently closed because of treacherous wind sheer.
Like Ms. Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich supports the road, but the issue presents a trickier political situation for him. He is a Democrat caught in an election year between the Obama administration’s opposition to building the road and the community’s support for a safer mode of transportation to Anchorage hospitals.
The issue is gaining momentum in Alaska, where the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner called Sunday on Ms. Jewell to reverse her decision.
“The secretary apparently doesn’t understand Alaska. That’s more than unfortunate to see in the person who is in charge of the federal agencies that have management authority over a large portion of the Alaska landmass,” said the editorial. “And that’s why the issue of the King Cove road should be seen as a statewide issue and not just an issue for the small community in the Aleutians East Borough. If a misplaced emphasis can happen there, it can happen in the Interior and elsewhere.”
In 1997, Congress appropriated $37.5 million to improve water access to Cold Bay, including a $9 million hovercraft. After three years, however, the Aleutians East Borough grounded the hovercraft, saying it was too costly and unreliable in bad weather.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.