- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2017

Alaska’s 30-year fight with Washington over an 11-mile gravel road to the isolated community of King Cove is one step closer to ending, as a bill authorizing a massive land swap between the state and federal government cleared the House easily Thursday.

In a bipartisan 248-to-179 vote, the House passed legislation that would exchange more than 200 acres of land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for more than 40,000 acres of state land.

The proposed road, which has been under discussion for decades and would run through the refuge, would connect King Cove to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay.

King Cove, which boasts a population of fewer than 1,000 people, is currently accessible only by water or air, and medical evacuations during winter months often can be extremely dangerous, if not impossible. The community does have its own airstrip, but it’s often closed during winter due to storms and fog.

The road proposal, which the Obama administration rejected in 2013 after a lengthy review process, has become a major battleground for environmentalists, who abhor the idea of constructing a road through the heart of the Izembek, which is home to several species of migratory birds whose habitat, critics say, will be irreparably harmed by the road.

But supporters say the risk to human lives outweighs all other factors. They point to the fact that at least 19 people have died over the past three decades while waiting for medevac out of King Cove, and they argue those lives could have been saved if a road were in place.

“Sadly, this legislation is only necessary because of the heartless actions of the previous administration, which denied previous efforts by Congress to authorize the construction of this road. That decision, which placed the interests of environmentalists and wildlife over human life, was one of the worst government actions I’ve seen in all my years,” said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, in a statement after the vote. “The people of King Cove have fought for over 30 years for safe and reliable access to emergency care and it’s past time we make it a reality. Frankly, I will not rest until we do.”

Mr. Young, along with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have made the King Cove road a top priority for years. They’ve long pushed the idea of a land swap as a way to quell environmentalists concerns, arguing that far more land will end up under federal wilderness protections as a result of exchange.

Still, green groups say the move sends a signal that other sensitive wilderness areas could be opened up for construction or other disturbances. Their concerns over King Cove also come amid a broader push by the Trump administration to open up public lands, including some areas currently designated as national monuments, to energy exploration and other activities.

“This would set a very dangerous precedent in a breathtakingly beautiful and important place,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “People in Congress who want to give away our public lands won’t stop with Izembek. If they get a road bulldozed through this pristine wildlife refuge, it’ll open the floodgates for undermining other public lands across the country.”

Environmental groups are expected to file numerous lawsuits that could keep the road from becoming reality for at least several years. State officials say Thursday’s vote is a significant step forward but is by no means the end of the fight.

“While the work is not yet finished, the passage of [the legislation] is a critical step towards actually building this necessary and life-saving road,” said Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican, in a statement. “State and federal agencies, our congressional delegation, and the residents of King Cove are continuing to work well towards this shared goal, and I look forward to seeing additional progress.”

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