By KEVIN DIAZ
Anchorage Daily News
June 11, 2007
If only the weather would cooperate, which much of the time it doesn't. Eleven have died on the treacherous air route since 1979.
Local villagers, searching for an overland route, have long been thwarted in their quest for a road -- not by the engineering challenges of the peninsula's mountains and wetlands, but because of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that blocks the way.
This week, in what could turn into the nation's next big environmental showdown, Alaska's congressional delegation will try to break the decades-long impasse with a proposed land swap: More than 61,720 acres of newly protected wildlife habitat in exchange for a seven-mile-long road easement through a narrow isthmus of the Izembek Refuge.
The land exchange would provide the first new wilderness area in Alaska in a quarter-century.
"It's a simple solution," said Gary Hennigh, city manager of King Cove, population 807.
"The federal government has said it's impossible, and we're just trying to make the impossible possible."
The idea has made some inroads inside the Bush administration's Interior Department but not with national environmental groups who hold sway in the new Democratic Congress.
"Izembek has the most valuable wetlands in Alaska, if not in the United States," said Alaska environmentalist Deborah Williams, who jousted over a road proposal with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a decade ago when she worked in the Clinton administration.
"It would be a biological travesty to build a road there."
But that is exactly what the state intends to do, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local governments such as the Aleutians East Borough and the city of King Cove.
Congress, which designated the wilderness in 1980, must sign off first.
The debate is expected to kick off this week when Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduces a bill authorizing a land trade among the federal government, the state and the King Cove Native corporation.
In a letter to the state's congressional delegation in February, Gov. Sarah Palin called the road "a long, needed, safe, dependable and economic access for residents."
But to build it, the state would have to carve out 206 acres of the Izembek Refuge for a 100-foot-wide easement. As planned, it would be a single-lane gravel road with a cable barrier on each side to prohibit off-road vehicles.
Backers know the plan is controversial, but they say it's a matter of life and death.
"This is what we've been fighting for for 30 years, to be able to go from King Cove to Cold Bay safely, with peace of mind, to travel like any other U.S. resident is able to do," said Della Trumble, president of the King Cove Native corporation.
As it is, Cold Bay, some 25 miles away, can be reached only by air or sea. The problem, as visitors have noted since there have been visitors to comment, is the weather.
Joann Veniaminov, a 19th-century Russian missionary in the Aleutian Islands, called it "the empire of the winds."
Gale-force winds and fog are a fact of life amid the volcanic peaks around King Cove's small airstrip. Scheduled flights in and out of town occur only 60 percent to 70 percent of the time, locals say.
Most of the fatal air crashes have involved medical evacuations in bad weather, including a 1980 tragedy that took the lives of an injured crabber and three rescuers.
In soupy weather, the hours-long sea route to Cold Bay is no picnic either. Trumble recalls a sister-in-law who went into premature labor and had a baby on board a boat to Cold Bay. Then the mother's IV cords got tangled up while she was being lifted to the dock.
But there are other interests at stake besides health and safety. The road would clearly enhance King Cove's fishing industry, the community's economic lifeblood.
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