Federal Decision Against Road Threatens
King Cove Residents
By Mary Kauffman, SitNews
February 07, 2013
(SitNews) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Tuesday evaluating a proposed land exchange that would establish a road corridor through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say after their careful evaluation of the impact of the construction and operation of the proposed road on the refuge and its wildlife resources, the agency has identified its preferred alternative as one that does not support allowing the land exchange to go forward.
This “no build alternative ”decision specifically will prohibit a strategic three-way land exchange between the State of Alaska, village corporations, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The exchange would allow for construction of the road through Izemak National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula and provide King Cove residents with access to the airport runway in Cold Bay.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s preferred alternative would protect the heart of a pristine landscape that congress designated as wilderness and that serves as vital habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, shorebirds and waterfowl – including 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “After extensive dialogue and exhaustive scientific evaluation, the agency has identified a preferred path forward that will ensure this extraordinary refuge and its wilderness are conserved and protected for future generations.”
Alaska Governor Sean Parnell expressed his deep frustration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) announced selection of a “no action” alternative saying, “I cannot fathom why the Fish and Wildlife Service prioritized a perceived risk to birds over an existing threat to human life. Parnell said, “After years of good faith efforts by the State of Alaska, the Alaska Legislature, the Aleutians East Borough, the City of King Cove, the King Cove Corporation, the Agdaagux Tribe, the Belkofski Tribe, and local residents to work with the federal government, the USFWS chose to deny King Cove residents access to basic services, like all-weather medical evacuation.”
The Governor said the road alternatives in the EIS require roughly 200 acres of federal land for a nine-mile road corridor to complete a 25-mile link between King Cove and Cold Bay. In a land exchange that depends on a road being built, the state and King Cove Corporation offered approximately 56,000 acres to be added to the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge.
Quoting the Governor's news release, the road alternatives would complete a 25-mile link between King Cove and Cold Bay’s all-weather airport. The community of King Cove and the Aleutians East Borough have sought the road for many years as an alternative to a weather-dependent hovercraft. Operation of the hovercraft has proven very expensive and unreliable in bad weather. A road link is particularly important when residents of King Cove have medical emergencies and need to be evacuated by air ambulance.
“The weather in that region is some of the most dangerous in the world,” Governor Parnell added. “The residents need and deserve a safe, reliable transportation option. A road will save lives, and is the only workable long-term solution.”
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) condemned the Department of the Interior for ignoring the safety of the residents of King Cove in opposing emergency road access through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula.
Public Law 111-11, sponsored by Murkowski, orders a land exchange and construction of a road to allow the residents of King Cove access to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay for emergency evacuation purposes.
According to Murkowski, as required by law, Secretary Salazar still must make a public interest determination on the transfer and the road.
“This decision is unacceptable and reflects a wanton disregard for the lives of the Aleut people who have called the Aleutians home for thousands of years. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death to the people of King Cove,” Murkowski said. “Too many people have died already for there to be any legitimate excuse for further delay.”
“When you consider the number of life-threatening accidents that have occurred due to the challenges of flying into King Cove during foul weather, I believe there is no greater good than providing safe road access to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay,” Murkowski said.
A dozen deaths have been attributed to the lack of road over the past 30 years. The worst accident occurred in 1981 when a plane crashed during an attempted medical evacuation, killing all four people onboard.
“It’s not surprising that people have lost faith in their government when irresponsible decisions like this are handed down from Washington,” Murkowski said. “If the environmental review process doesn’t allow for valuing the health and safety of a community then it is irrevocably broken.
“So far Secretary Salazar has refused to meet with the people of King Cove. It is imperative that he meet face to face with the people whose lives he is putting at risk before making a final decision,” Murkowski said. “This fight is not over.”
The land exchange, which was approved by Congress in the 2009 Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Land Exchange Act, would increase the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 56,000 acres in exchange for 206 acres of federally-owned land for the construction a single-land, gravel road to connect King Cove and Cold Bay. Use of the road would be restricted to emergencies only by law.
The law requires the Interior Secretary to determine whether the road is in the public interest – a decision that is by law separate and distinct from the environmental impact statement. The Interior Secretary is not bound by the finding of the environmental impact statement, especially where the health and safety of a community is concerned.
Also calling it an issue of life and death, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) blasted the federal Department of Interior's decision to prohibit a road from King Cove to Cold Bay which would provide residents with access to a key airport in the case of emergencies. The airport is only 25 miles away and now accessible by boat or small plane and only when weather permits.
“This wrong-headed decision by Washington bureaucrats simply ignores the life and safety realities of the Alaskans who call the community of King Cove home. King Cove residents need access to a viable airport in case of emergency and Cold Bay airport is just 25 miles away. I voted for a bill shortly after arriving in the Senate in 2009 to provide King Cove residents access to this airport and now Washington is ignoring the will of Congress and the needs of Alaskans,” Begich said.
“I’ll be working over the next few months to make sure the residents of King Cove have a voice in this decision and that DOI understands the importance of this road as the best interest finding is prepared.”
Begich voted for the exchange in 2009. He said he will now be working over the coming weeks to ensure that Alaska’s needs are heard as the DOI prepares the best interest finding, which takes into account the needs of residents beyond the environmental impact.
To complete the analysis, as directed by Congress in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they conducted a transparent public process that involved all affected parties as cooperators in the EIS. Through more than 100 meetings and many trips to King Cove by Service and Department of the Interior officials, coupled with careful consideration of input from stakeholders, the agency worked diligently to ensure a complete dialogue on and understanding of the issue.
In response to the 2009 Act, the Service analyzed five alternatives in the EIS: no action, two road alternatives, hovercraft service six days a week, and ferry service. The Service expects to issue a formal Record of Decision no earlier than 30 days after publication of the final EIS.
“Our final decision will be based on the analysis contained in this document, which reflects the most current scientific information and the expertise of our biologists,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “The weight of this scientific evidence demonstrates that building a road through the refuge would irretrievably damage the ecological functions of the refuge and impair its ability to provide vital support for native wildlife.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the proposed road would permanently bisect the area, where most of the refuge’s 315,000 acres are congressionally-designated Wilderness. By designating this area as wilderness, the most protective category of public lands, Congress recognized the need to protect Izembek as a place where natural processes prevail with few signs of human presence.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says permanent road would fragment undisturbed habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, and would compromise the protections offered to waterfowl and shorebirds. At the heart of the areas protected are internationally significant eelgrass beds in Izembek and Kinzarof lagoons, as well as adjacent uplands of the isthmus. These wetlands, among the first in the U.S. to be designated as a “Wetland of International Importance” in 1987 under the Ramsar Convention, feed more than 98 percent of the world's Pacific black brant before they fly to wintering grounds in Mexico. Other species that depend on these wetlands and eelgrass beds include emperor geese, Steller’s eiders, and hundreds of thousands of other federally-protected waterfowl and shorebirds.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while the proposed land exchange would bring many more acres of land into the Refuge System, the analysis indicates that the increased acreage could not compensate for the unique values of existing refuge lands, nor the anticipated effects that the proposed road would have on wildlife, habitat, subsistence resources, and wilderness values of the refuge. Based on this analysis, the Service has selected Alternative 1, the no action alternative, as the preferred alternative.
“The Izembek Refuge and its Wilderness were established to protect some of the most unique and important wetlands in the world, and running a road through those sensitive areas will have lasting consequences for Alaska’s wildlife,” said Geoff Haskett, the Service’s Alaska Regional Director. “We will continue to work with the State of Alaska and local communities to support viable alternatives to ensure the continued health and safety of King Cove residents.”
The idea of a road connecting King Cove and Cold Bay has been discussed since the 1990s. The late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens spearheaded an effort in 1997 that led Congress to provide over $37 million in federal funding as an alternative to a road through the Izembek Refuge and Izembek Wilderness. The funding upgraded the medical clinic, improved the King Cove airstrip, and created a transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay via an unpaved road from King Cove to a hovercraft and terminal. During the time that it was in operation from 2007 to 2010, the hovercraft successfully completed every requested medical evacuation.
In November 2010, the Aleutians East Borough decided to suspend hovercraft services between King Cove and Cold Bay. If the proposed road through the refuge is not constructed, the Borough has indicated that it will develop an alternative transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay. The Borough has indicated that an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry could be more technically and financially viable than a hovercraft.
A summary of the public comments received and responses to substantive comments are addressed in the final EIS, which is available for public review for at least 30 days. This 30-day review period under the National Environmental Policy Act allows federal and state agencies, and individuals and organizations who commented on the draft document, a chance to review the Service’s response in the final EIS. After the review period ends, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will complete the Record of Decision.
King Cove is a city in the Aleutians. The 2010 census reports the population to be 938.
On the Web:
A copy of the final EIS
Sources of News:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Office of Governor Sean Parnell
Office of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski
Office of U.S. Senator Mark Begich
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