Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has rejected a proposal to swap a parcel of Alaska state and Native-owned land on the Aleutian peninsula for a road corridor through a federal wildlife refuge.
Jewell’s decision, announced on Dec. 23, drew praise from environmentalists, but strong criticism from Alaska’s senior U.S. senator and some local officials.
Jewell said that the proposed road—from the town of King Cove through part of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an all-weather airport near the town of Cold Bay about 20 miles away—“would cause irreversible damage not only to the refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it.”
Under the proposal, about 56,000 acres of land owned by the state of Alaska and King Cove Corp., a Native American company, would be exchanged for 1,800 federally owned acres, including a 206-acre road corridor through the refuge. That would allow construction of a single-lane gravel road 19.4 miles to 21.6 miles long and 100 ft wide.
The state and Native acreage would be added to the federal wildlife refuge system.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) slammed Jewell’s action as a “horrible decision.”
Murkowski added in her statement, “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.”
Proponents of the plan wanted to build the road to provide land access from King Cove to Cold Bay, for medical evacuations and other purposes. They say King Cove frequently is hit by strong winds and dense fog, making travel dangerous.
They also note that King Cove has a clinic, but no hospital or physician, so they need to fly from King Cove to Anchorage, 600 miles away, for many medical procedures.
King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said in a statement, “The federal government’s decision is devastating.” He added, “But it isn’t over. … We simply have to find a way to turn this around.”
Environmental groups hailed Jewell’s decision. Cindy Shogan, Alaska Wilderness League executive director, said in a statement, “We declare this a victory for wilderness and for the American taxpayer. The wilderness values of this unique refuge are truly irreplaceable.”
Interior said the Izembek refuge, established in 1960, is “vital habitat” for shorebirds, waterfowl, grizzly bear, caribou and salmon.
Murkowski, the top GOP member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and also on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Dept.’s budget, “is considering next steps to protect the people of King Cove,” according to a statement from her office.