For Della Trumble and others in her town of King Cove, Alaska, the Obama administration chose bird feed over their health and safety.
Washington's refusal to allow a 10-mile gravel road between King Cove and the airport at Cold Bay is a matter of life or death for Alaskans who rely on quick access to airports and hospital flights as much as migratory birds rely on the eel grass that the Interior Department would rather preserve.
The most terrifying day of Ms. Trumble's life was in 2010 when a small plane carrying her daughter slammed into a makeshift airfield near their home in the remote fishing village.
"It was one of the most frightening things you'll ever watch in your life. I saw it happen, and I ran down the runway at about 100 miles per hour to get to the plane," said Ms. Trumble. "Fortunately, everybody was OK. They had sore necks from the impact."
Not everyone who flies between King Cove, population 965, and the all-weather airport at Cold Bay is so lucky. Nineteen people have died there in airplane crashes, some of them emergency responders and patients attempting to reach the regional hospital in Anchorage.
Five years ago, Alaskans thought they had a solution: Swap 60,000 acres of state and private land with 206 acres of federal land to build the gravel road between King Cove and Cold Bay, which would allow seriously ill and injured residents to travel to the more reliable airport by road instead of by plane.
In December, however, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the plan. The road would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and environmental groups worry that it could imperil the eel grass that serves as food for migratory birds.
"An Izembek road will lead to increased incursions and disturbance into a fragile area and to impacts that will affect Alaskans, Canadians and people all along the Pacific Flyway," Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska, said in a March 21 article in the Anchorage Daily News.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, accused Ms. Jewell of caring more about migratory birds than the residents of King Cove.
"There is a safe and an easy way to help our fellow citizens, and the only thing standing in the way is our own federal government's decision to place a higher value on the birds than it does on the health and the safety of my state's citizens, and that is simply wrong," Mrs. Murkowski said Wednesday at an Appropriations Committee hearing.
Since Jan. 1, she said, seven seriously ill or injured residents have been transported by medevac or the Coast Guard to the Cold Bay airport, unable to use the town's small unlit airstrip because of weather conditions.
"Every Coast Guard flight risks the lives of at least four Coast Guardsmen and women, not to mention the patient they're trying to evacuate," said Mrs. Murkowski. "It is not without cost and not without risk. Each one of these Coast Guard evacuations costs a minimum of $210,000 to go from Cold Bay to King Cove. That's taxpayer dollars. That's our Coast Guardsmen and women's lives at risk."
Last week, fisherman Walter Wilson wound up at the King Cove clinic in need of evacuation after his pelvis was crushed by a 600-pound crab pot. On the same day, his infant son, Wyatt, was rushed to the clinic in respiratory distress.
They were flown by Coast Guard helicopter within hours of each other to the Cold Bay airport and on to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. They were unable to take the same flight because there wasn't enough room in the MH-60 Jayhawk, according to the Alaska Dispatch.
The village is populated mainly by Alaska Natives from the Agdaagux tribe, whose ancestors arrived thousands of years ago. Implying that they are unable to serve as stewards for the migratory birds without federal intervention is insulting, Mrs. Murkowski said.
"The notion from your department that you must protect Alaska from Alaska Natives, our first people — it's insulting," said Mrs. Murkowski. "And that's the way that Alaskans feel. We feel insulted that we cannot care for the land and the animals and the birds and still provide for a safe, reliable access."
She gave 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," said Ms. Murkowski. "Today, I have a Hulk scarf on. And I don't typically engage in much drama."
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