- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

As President Obama treks across Alaska this week, leading Republicans in Washington say they will continue to fight the administration over its refusal to approve a potentially lifesaving road in a remote corner of the state.

The Interior Department in late 2013 rejected a plan to build a road to provide direct land access to King Cove, an Alaskan community of fewer than 1,000 people accessible only by air and water. The administration — which continues to defend its decision to block the road — and other opponents argue that construction would disturb pristine areas of the protected Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Supporters say Mr. Obama, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other officials are putting lives in danger because residents of King Cove now must rely on air transport in the case of medical emergency. Two dozen residents have been transported off the island via medevac since Ms. Jewell rejected the 11-mile road plan, according to the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican.

Ms. Murkowski now is trying to force the issue by including in Interior Department appropriations legislation provisions to build the road. Her bill would facilitate a land swap between Alaska and the federal government, setting aside other parts of the state as protected wilderness and removing barriers to the construction of the King Cove road. It’s unclear whether the provisions will survive budget negotiations.

“King Cove is the perfect opportunity for conservationists to say, ‘You know what, there are times when we have to make allowances and put people first.’ It would really earn a lot of good will,” said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Ms. Murkowski.

The push for the road has been renewed as Mr. Obama spends three days in Anchorage and tours other parts of the state. His visit to Alaska is designed primarily to promote his climate change agenda, though the president also has taped a segment for the TV show “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.”

In Washington, the Interior Department is sticking with its position. Legal challenges to the administration’s decision-making process have been unsuccessful, though some cases still are outstanding.

In her initial decision — issued two days before Christmas in 2013 — Ms. Jewell acknowledged the potentially serious issues in King Cove.

“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,” she said. “I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”

Some conservationists argue that the road not only would disturb wilderness but also would be a bad financial move, at a cost as high as $2 million per mile, according to some estimates.

“Now is the time to discuss alternatives to a road. The federal government has made a decision. The numbers just don’t add up,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director at the Wilderness Society. “At a time of deep federal budget cuts affecting numerous federal programs and reducing the size of America’s military services, the question is: How can we afford to spend tens of millions to build a gravel road?”

Mr. Dillon dismissed those concerns and said the road could be built economically and without major environmental or ecological disturbance.

“This is all a red herring,” he said of conservationists’ concerns.

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