Outrage Over Federal Decision to Nix Land Swap: Grinch Steals Road From King Cove
Conservation Groups Praise Action
By MARY KAUFFMAN
December 24, 2013
As directed by Congress in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell concluded yesterday a four-year analysis, and issued a decision supporting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s preferred alternative to decline a proposed land exchange with the State of Alaska and prevent construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which was first established in the 1960s.
This land exchange approved by Congress in the 2009 – the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Land Exchange Act – proposed adding more than 56,000 acres of state and tribal land to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in exchange for a 206-acre road corridor through a corner of the refuge to connect King Cove with an all-weather airport in neighboring Cold Bay. Use of the road would be restricted to emergencies only by law.
“We’ve undertaken a robust and transparent public process to review the matter from all sides, and I have personally visited the Refuge and met with the King Cove and Cold Bay communities to gain a better understanding of their concerns,” said Jewell. “After careful consideration, I support the Service’s conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it. 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. 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," said Jewell.
“We are shocked that Secretary Jewell has made this dangerous, wrong-headed decision,” said Della Trumble, spokeswoman for Agdaagux Tribal Council and the King Cove (Native) Corporation. We are very insulted that our health, safety and quality of life simply do not matter to her. Clearly, the Secretary’s trust responsibility to the Native people is very subjective and, is in fact, meaningless.”
King Cove residents have been fighting for decades for a single-lane gravel road corridor that would provide safe access to Cold Bay’s airport, located just 22 miles away. When the federal government first created the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge more than three decades ago, it cut off the traditional land route between the Aleut community of King Cove and the old World War II outpost of Cold Bay. Community residents were never consulted. Because of that decision, King Cove is accessible only by sea or air. The remote community is often plagued by gale-force winds and thick fog, creating stormy, dangerous travel conditions, especially during medevacs.
“The lives of our people, our elders, children and grandchildren are at stake over this issue,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “Are birds really more important than people? It seems so hard to believe that the federal government finds it impossible to accommodate both wildlife and human beings. Is the Obama Administration turning its back on Native Americans?”
According to King Cove officials, over the years, more than a dozen people have died, either in plane crashes or because they couldn’t get treatment in a timely manner. King Cove has a clinic, but no hospital or doctor. Residents must fly 600 miles to Anchorage, via Cold Bay, for most medical procedures, including serious trauma cases and childbirth.
“Secretary Jewell listened to heartfelt, emotional stories of difficult medevacs when she visited King Cove last summer,” Trumble added. “But the decision to turn down the land exchange and road corridor access makes a mockery of the President’s recent Executive Order establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs.”
Interior Sec. Jewell and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski traveled to King Cove On Aug. 30, 2013 to visit with residents. They also flew over the Izembek Refuge to see where the road corridor would connect with the existing road system built during World War II. As part of the deal, Congress and President Obama approved a land swap that would have transferred more than 56,000 of pristine state and Alaska Native land to the refuge in exchange for access to a single-lane gravel road corridor. Following an environmental impact statement, the decision was left up to the Interior Secretary to determine whether it was in the public interest.
“The federal government’s decision is devastating,” said King Cove Mayor Henry Mack. “But it isn’t over. We will never give up until we get the road to protect the lives, health and safety of our people. This is too important. We simply have to find a way to turn this around.”
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) denounced as heartless and ill-informed Monday's decision by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reject a proposed lifesaving road for the isolated Alaska community of King Cove.
“I am angered and deeply disappointed by Jewell’s decision to continue to put the lives of the people of King Cove in danger, simply for the convenience of a few bureaucrats and the alleged peace of the birds in the refuge, despite the fact that many thousands of birds are killed by hunters annually,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski said the decision endangers the Aleut people of King Cove and clearly ignores the Interior Department’s trust responsibility to Alaska Natives.
“This is a horrible decision at any time, but horribly offensive going into the holidays. It is an additional slap in the face to the people of King Cove and shows that the Department of Interior understands how deeply troubling and problematic is this complete rejection of its native trust responsibility,” Murkowski said.
“This is not just about King Cove – it is emblematic of the attitude that we all too often in Alaska see from Washington. The idea that Alaska has to be protected from Alaskans is highly offensive,” Murkowski said. “This administration may be willing to abandon the people of King Cove, but I am not going to give up on them.”
Murkowski, who is the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and on the Appropriations Committee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department’s budget, is considering next steps to protect the people of King Cove.
U.S. Sentator Mark Begich (D-AK) was also critical of the Interior's decision on King Cove.
“It’s the same sad story - a federal agency that doesn’t listen to Alaskans. Even after visiting King Cove and hearing first-hand the tragic consequences of critically ill people being transported through 12-foot seas to get medical care, Washington bureaucrats have determined that the environmental impact of a single lane road somehow outweighs the health of Alaskans. Today’s decision is disappointing but unfortunately not surprising," said Begich in a prepared statement.
Begich said, “As soon as Congress reconvenes in January, I’ll be introducing legislation directing the federal government to build this vital one-lane road so the residents of King Cove can rely on the same basic access to critical medical care enjoyed by other Americans.”
Governor Sean Parnell also expressed his outrage at Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision to not allow a lifesaving road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Calling it a matter of life or death for Alaskans, Governor Parnell has been a strong advocate for the construction of a 13-foot-wide emergency medical evacuation road connecting King Cove and Cold Bay.
"[Monday's] decision is unconscionable,” Governor Parnell said. “This is another irrational decision by the federal government that denies Alaskans access – in this case access to emergency treatment. As governor, I will continue to fight for the residents of King Cove who deserve much better.”
Congressman Don Young (R-AK) said the Interior's decision is the “largest pile of horse manure ever delivered on Christmas."
“While the families of King Cove gather together this holiday season, the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been sitting on this heartless decision until the most inopportune time,” said Congressman Young. “This shameful and cowardly decision by Secretary Jewell, just two days before Christmas, to place eelgrass and waterfowl above human life is exactly what I would have expected from the Grinch, but not from an Administration that preaches access to quality healthcare for all. This announcement falls right in line with an Administration that has continually demonstrated that their priorities are out of whack.”
“It is appalling for a Department Secretary, tasked with protecting the federal trust responsibility of our nation’s first people, to completely overlook and ignore a group of Alaska Natives,” said Congressman Young. “She is clearly mistaken if the words of outsiders and environmentalists, with no concept of the area or the people, are valued more than Alaskans who have supported this project from the beginning.”
Senator John Coghill, Majority Leader of the Alaska State Senate, on behalf of the Senate Majority, said yesterday he is very disappointed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision to not allow a 13-foot-wide emergency medical evacuation road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.
Earlier this year, the Alaska Senate Majority sent a letter to the Department of the Interior pointing out that over the last 30 years, in Cold Bay and King Cove, at least 11 people died due to the lack of road (including a 1981 plane crash during an attempted medical evacuation).
Weather conditions in the area can be violently unpredictable and travel by hovercraft has proven unreliable and cost-prohibitive.
“The Alaska Senate is increasingly troubled that the federal government is more concerned with satisfying powerful, deep-pocketed outside environmental interests, than it is with creating realistic solutions for those directly affected: Alaskans, in Alaska,” said Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole/Fairbanks.
Coghill said in a prepared statement that according to a September 14, 2010 Scoping Report, of the 31,568 public comments submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 31,454 form letters were received from only four different sources: Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, Audubon, and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. Seemingly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to have been heavily influenced by these large out-of-state environmental interests (despite the unprecedented land exchange offer by state and tribal leaders).
Quoting a news release form Sen. Coghill, the land exchange proposed that the federal government give up a mere 206 acres from the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and 1,600 acres from a refuge south of Kodiak for 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land belonging to King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation.
“The Grinch is stealing the spirit of Christmas from King Cove,” Representative Bob Herron, D-Bethel, said. “A lump of coal is being delivered in time for the holidays, and they – and other Alaskans – have every right to be outraged. I share their feelings, and have been concerned about the project since the EIS process began.”
“36 members of the Alaska State House sent a letter questioning then-Secretary Salazar’s questionable justifications for past actions to halt progress or try and scuttle the project, and we were equally heartened when the process was re-opened. But today’s action is a kick to the stomach, another fall on this decade’s long roller coaster,” Herron said.
“The pat on the head from Secretary Jewell, offering to send us along on a search for an alternative, is really a slap in the face," said Herron. He said he will seek help and advice from colleagues once the Legislature reconvenes in Juneau in January.
Numerous conservation groups are praising the action of the Secretary of the Interior's decision to protect Alaska Wilderness.
We appreciate Secretary Jewell’s leadership to protect the heart of the Izembek Refuge,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director, Alaska Wilderness League. “We declare this a victory for wilderness and for the American taxpayer. The wilderness values of this unique refuge are truly irreplaceable. It provides vital habitat to Steller’s sea lions, brown bear, tundra swans, and a quarter of a million migratory birds that use the refuge each fall.”
“Izembek is an irreplaceable, globally important area for many hundreds of thousands of migratory birds,” said Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska. “In some years, virtually all of the world’s Pacific Black Brant use Izembek, including birds from Alaska, Russia, and Canada. Science shows this is a globally significant resource. We support the Fish and Wildlife Service’s sound decision to keep the refuge intact.”
Ron Fowler, president of the Blue Goose Alliance, said, “The Blue Goose Alliance would like to commend Secretary Jewell for her courageous decision defending the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge from a land exchange and road that would have caused irreversible damage to the refuge.”
“We applaud Secretary Jewell’s strong stand to protect Izembek’s wilderness and its unmatched wildlife habitat from the damaging impacts of the proposed road,” said conservation biologist Kiersten Lippmann of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Clearly, building a road through this remote and ecologically critical area was not in the public interest.”
“The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges applauds the decision by Secretary Jewell to endorse the extensively studied and documented conclusion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife that rejected the proposed road through the biological heart of the Izembek Wilderness,” said David Raskin, past president and advocacy chair for Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. “Her action forcefully recognizes that Izembek is a critical, world class habitat for iconic and endangered species that deserve protection from this unnecessary, damaging, and extremely costly proposal. This is a resounding victory for Wilderness and all who enjoy and love our National Wildlife Refuges.”
“We thank Secretary Jewell for her leadership in protecting the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters. “A thorough study by the experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that Secretary Jewell’s decision to leave the refuge intact is the right thing to do for the diverse array of wildlife species that depend on this irreplaceable wilderness area.”
“Secretary Jewell has followed sound science and determined the proposed road would be harmful to the Alaska’s Izembek Refuge and to wildlife. More than 15 years ago, Congress provided $37.5 million to the communities near the refuge for a transportation alternative which includes a hovercraft and medical clinic improvements.” said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, Vice President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. ”We applaud her leadership and support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s exhaustive scientific study and for protecting this spectacular refuge and wilderness area.”
“We’re pleased Secretary Jewell held up a stop sign on a bad idea,” said Chuck Clusen, Alaska Project Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As with other refuges, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge provides a critical habitat for migratory birds. Punching a road through the Izembak’s heart could derail breeding of the Pacific black Brant and other important species that rely on undeveloped wild lands for their continued survival.”
“We applaud Secretary Jewell for following the science and the findings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in deciding to protect the incredible natural values of the refuge. Her decision is the right one for American taxpayers, for Native communities that rely on the refuge for their livelihood, and for wildlife of the refuge,” said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director.
“We appreciate Secretary Jewell’s thorough study of this issue, and applaud her for visiting the region and making a scientifically sound decision to protect this extraordinarily important wilderness habitat,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the right decision months ago, and the secretary’s decision to uphold that ruling is a victory for the wildlife refuge, the communities that depend on it for subsistence activities and for designated wilderness nationwide.”
George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said, “Wilderness Watch supports Secretary Jewell’s decision to say no to a road through the Izembek Refuge Wilderness, thus avoiding a dangerous precedent for the entire National Wilderness Preservation System.”
Given the serious concerns raised by King Cove residents, Secretary of the Interior Jewell reiterated Monday the Department’s commitment to assist in identifying and evaluating options that would improve access to affordable transportation and health care for the citizens of this remote Alaska community. She noted that nothing in the decision precludes the State of Alaska, the Aleutians East Borough, or the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay from implementing another alternative for transportation improvements outside of the Refuge, including enhancements to the dock at Cold Bay.
“We will continue to work with the State of Alaska and local communities to support viable alternatives to ensure continued transportation and infrastructure improvements for the health and safety of King Cove residents,” added Jewell.
According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960, serves as vital habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl – including 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant – as well as grizzly bear, caribou and salmon. These species are important subsistence resources for Native Alaskans. A road would have permanently bisected the isthmus, where most of the Refuge’s 315,000 acres of congressionally-designated wilderness are located.
By designating this area as wilderness in 1980, 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. At the core of the areas protected are internationally significant eelgrass beds in Izembek and Kinzarof lagoons, as well as adjacent wetlands and uplands of the narrow isthmus. In addition to the brant, 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.
While the proposed land exchange would bring many more acres of land into the Refuge System, the analysis by the U.S. Department of Interior 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.
The idea of a road has been discussed since at least the 1980s, with King Cove residents expressing interest in a road to improve access to Cold Bay and its airport for personal, medical and commercial purposes. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens spearheaded an effort in 1997 that led Congress to provide over $37.5 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. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the Borough has indicated that if a proposed road was not constructed, it would develop an alternative transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay. Additionally, the Borough has stated that an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry could be more technically and financially viable than a hovercraft.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public review on February 6, 2013. On March 21, 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed that two actions be completed before any final decision: 1) the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs visit King Cove and hold additional government-to-government consultations to assess the medical evacuation benefits from the proposed road, and provide a report to the Secretary; and 2) the Secretary of the Interior hold an official meeting in King Cove.
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