President Trump’s Interior Department plans a fresh look at shelved plans to build a single-lane gravel road to King Cove, Alaska, breathing new life into a decades-long debate that has pitted the isolated community seeking a link to the outside world against environmentalists who say the project would wreak havoc on a federal wildlife refuge.
The proposed road, which would connect King Cove to an airport in nearby Cold Bay, was rejected in 2013 by Obama administration Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She said concerns about damage to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — through which the road would run — outweighed arguments in favor of the project and that alternatives to the road could be found.
Critics of Ms. Jewell’s decision, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who has championed the road for years, argue that it is a matter of life and death for the fewer than 1,000 residents of King Cove. With no access to the community by road, residents must be flown via medevac in the event of a medical emergency.
Alaskan officials say at least 19 people have died over the past three decades either waiting in King Cove for medical attention or in medevac crashes as they attempted to reach the Cold Bay airport. A simple road, Ms. Murkowski and others argue, would save lives.
Rep. Don Young, a Republican and Alaska’s lone representative in the House, also has introduced legislation to clear the way for the road to be built. He was sharply critical of the road’s opponents at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing this month.
“The idea that the area is going to be disturbed is nonsense,” Mr. Young said. “It’s pure B.S. that comes out of these interest groups — these environmental groups.”
But opponents of the project say that in addition to the environmental damage a road could cause, alternatives such as boats are more affordable and environmentally friendly.
Although the debate has been raging for decades, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will revisit the project. Mr. Trump has often spoken of the burden federal environmental rules and regulations have placed on the states and on the economy, raising hopes that the roadblock put up under the Obama administration may be removed.
Mr. Zinke “places priority in considering state and local input in decisions before the department. Given the significant interest of the King Cove community, the department is reviewing the issues there and determining its best ability to address them,” said Megan Bloomgren, a spokeswoman for the department.
Ms. Jewell’s 2013 decision also was upheld by a federal judge, who in September 2015 shot down King Cove residents’ claim that she violated proper regulatory procedures in reaching her conclusion. That court case temporarily closed the issue from a political perspective.
New president, new perspective
But with a new administration in place, Ms. Murkowski is redoubling her efforts. She has proposed a massive land swap that she says should mitigate any environmental concerns associated with building the road. Her legislation would turn over roughly 43,000 acres of state land to the federal government in exchange for a 400-acre corridor through the Izembek refuge needed to construct the road. That corridor would impose on only about 0.06 percent of the Izembek refuge.
King Cove has a small airstrip, but Ms. Murkowski and others say it is routinely closed because of poor weather.
The Cold Bay airport, they say, was designed as an all-weather facility and is rarely closed, making it a far better option for the sick or injured in King Cove.
In addition to the reported deaths over the years, Ms. Murkowski points to a case last year of an elderly woman with a hip fracture who had to wait 40 hours before a helicopter could transport her to a hospital in Anchorage.
Heavy fog, Ms. Murkowski said, temporarily prevented a medevac flight out of King Cove.
“I have spoken to President Trump and Secretary Zinke about the Aleut people who live in this region, how deeply they care for their lands and how they are being forced to live in fear that they will not be able to receive proper care in the event of a medical emergency,” the senator said. “I am looking at all available options to finally authorize a short, one-lane gravel road as expeditiously as possible and have renewed hope as I work with the new administration.”
But critics still say a road from King Cove to Cold Bay is the wrong course. They point to repeated Interior Department studies that conclude that the project should not move forward.
“The facts have not changed since Secretary Jewell ruled against the road project,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Regional Director for The Wilderness Society.
“It’s important to note that the Department of the Interior has repeatedly studied a proposed land swap and road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and consistently rejected the project because of its negative effects on the ecological, subsistence and wilderness values of the refuge,” she said.
The Army Corps of Engineers in 2015 released a detailed report that examined alternatives to a road from King Cove to Cold Bay. The study did not make an official recommendation but did set out a variety of proposals, including the construction of a new airport on King Cove, establishing marine modes of transportation and setting up a more reliable heliport.
Each option, while expensive and coming with its own set of pros and cons, seemed at least somewhat viable, according to the report.
For that reason, along with the environmental damage a road could cause, environmentalists contend that Ms. Murkowski and her allies should give up on the project.
“This land swap and road building plan have been studied repeatedly, and rejected repeatedly. It’s past time for Alaska’s congressional leaders to stop wasting time on this failed road project and instead focus on the other available solutions that can meet the needs of local residents while keeping Izembek National Wildlife Refuge intact,” said Alli Harvey, Alaska representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.