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Costly hovercraft at center of Western Alaska controversy
Anchorage Daily News


August 22, 2007

A $9 million hovercraft linking two Alaska Peninsula communities will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, but it's well worth the cost, according to some residents who say they are tired of seeing critically ill and storm-bound relatives die.

They say it's not a long-term solution, though.

The Aleutians East Borough began operating the hovercraft in March. Part of a $37 million gift approved by Congress in 1998 to make King Cove safer, it's already helped 15 ailing residents reach the Cold Bay airport 25 water miles across the bay.

But the 93-foot boat, which started providing daily passenger service earlier this month, can't handle the huge waves and strong winds that sometimes separate the two communities, King Cove residents say. They want a gravel road carved from their village of 800 to Cold Bay, a community of 90 that's home to the state's third-largest airport.

Problem is, seven miles of the road would slice through a sensitive portion of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, where hundreds of thousands of birds, including the threatened Steller's eider, feed in two lagoons. More than a dozen environmental groups are lined up against the road.

A showdown will take place in Congress sometime next month. A bill introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to authorize a land trade among the state, the King Cove Native corporation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled for a hearing before the House Resources Committee.

King Cove leaders have sought a road for decades. Planes can't land there when strong winds swirl and fog envelops the volcanic peaks around the airstrip. Eleven people in need of medical help have died trying to get to Cold Bay since 1979, said retired King Cove fisherman Seward Brandell Sr. One 1980 tragedy took the lives of an injured crabber and three rescuers.

But medical jets can land in Cold Bay even in bad weather.

This time, King Cove hopes to win congressional approval by sweetening the pot with a massive land exchange. The state and the local Native corporation promise to give the refuge more than 61,000 acres in exchange for 206 acres needed for the road.

A June 25 letter from Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the chunks of land have significant wilderness value for tundra swans and caribou.

It's not enough, said Nicole Whittington-Evans with the Wilderness Society's Alaska office. The lands aren't adjacent to Izembek and Kinzarof lagoons, so it's not an equal swap, she said.

For one thing, the road will expose the birds, and other migrating animals such as caribou, to fumes, oil spills and other pollution, she said.

Residents say the hovercraft is nice -- it rides smoother than a fishing boat -- but it won't save lives when the winds are really bad, such as more than 50 mph.

Suffering pneumonia in both lungs last April, Brandell, 69, rode in a fishing boat through 12-foot seas and 60-mph winds. It took more than two hours to reach Cold Bay, and then a dangerous leap from the boat's railing to the dock ladder, he said.

But the hovercraft couldn't have handled that weather, Brandell said.

"It is a big help like in a snowstorm or when it's foggy, but wind-wise, a hovercraft just can't do it," he said.

The hovercraft will lose about $500,000 a year, borough officials said. To pay for it, the borough will take money from an account it annually injects with about $1 million to $2 million collected primarily from fish taxes.

"In the short term we think it's worth it," said Clark Corbridge, Aleutians East Borough assistant administrator. "But we want to look at it in three or four years and see what the people in the borough think about continuing to operate it."

They won't like it, especially when they see their schools losing money, said Della Trumble, president of the King Cove corporation. The road would be less expensive and more reliable, she said.

"We always knew, no matter what, the best link we could have is the road," Trumble said.

Congress approved the hovercraft money -- which also paid for a clinic upgrade and a hovercraft terminal, among other things -- so the community would not need the road through the refuge, said Stan Senner, Audubon Alaska's executive director.

The road will make it easier for hunters to reach the refuge's animals and increase pressure on game resources, he said.

Residents today might try to prevent over-hunting -- road supporters have proposed extending a cable along the road to prevent off-road vehicles from entering the refuge -- but that won't work forever, Senner said.

"The new hovercraft simply hasn't been given a chance," he said.


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