Alaska wants to build a 17-mile road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect two remote outposts.
Among the many bills Congress is considering before it recesses for the November elections is a proposed land swap between the State of Alaska and the federal government that would allow a gravel road to be built through a remote national wildlife refuge.
Environmental groups are lined up against the proposal, saying a road would threaten the pristine wilderness area. Building it would require cutting an approximately 200-acre strip through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula, a resting place for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds and other animals.
Alaska officials, led by Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, say the road is needed to connect one tiny outpost, King Cove, to another, Cold Bay, so that the 800 residents of King Cove have reliable access, particularly in emergencies, to the all-weather airport across the water in Cold Bay.
The issue before Congress is whether to allow Alaska to swap about 43,000 acres of state land for the 200 or so acres in the Izembek refuge needed for the road, which would be a single lane and, though the exact route has not been determined, would require an estimated 17 miles of construction, at $1 million to $2 million per mile.
Though the proposed land swap has been a source of debate for years, some opponents are drawing new attention to it as an example of Congressional excess. They have compared it to the controversial Bridge to Nowhere in Ketchikan, Alaska, which was ultimately abandoned but has proved a thorn for the governor, Sarah Palin, in her campaign as the Republican nominee for vice president. Ms. Palin supports the land exchange and the proposed road through Izembek.
A road “is going to fragment and irreparably harm one of the most pristine and valuable wilderness and wetland areas in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, the associate director of the Wilderness Society’s Alaska office.
But supporters of the project say opponents are misrepresenting it. They point out that the basics of the proposed land swap have not been significantly altered since well before Ms. Palin took office, in December 2006. Furthermore, while the measure before Congress would give the Department of the Interior the authority to approve the project, no money would be set aside under the current bill and several caveats could delay or stop the project outright.
“There is no earmark request here,” said Ms. Murkowski, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate (Representative Don Young, a Republican and the state’s lone Congressional representative, sponsored it in the House). “There is none pending. There hasn’t been any that was asked for.”
Ms. Murkowski said Democrats had demanded significant changes, including measures to require more environmental study and to give the interior secretary discretion to determine whether the project was in the “public interest.”
Opponents, however, say the bill as they interpret it essentially directs the secretary to find that the proposal is in the public interest. If that were to happen, the road could be financed by the state using money from the federal Highway Trust Fund, instead of an earmark, according to state transportation officials and Ms. Murkowski’s office. The road is not currently in the state transportation financing plan.
Versions of the bill have cleared key committees in the House and Senate and await floor votes. However, given the economic bailout plans Congress is considering, the prospect of a measure passing this year “looks grim,” said Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
If the road is not approved this year, it will not be the first time. In 1998, the Clinton administration opposed the road, being pushed by the Alaska delegation, and instead brokered a $37 million deal to provide a hovercraft across Cold Bay to improve transportation for medical evacuations; the plan also upgraded a medical center in King Cove. But the hovercraft just started operating last year, and residents say weather and high costs make its use unpredictable. The local government also says it costs about $100,000 a month to operate. Opponents of the road, however, say it, too, may be unusable in foul weather and they note that the hovercraft has conducted medical evacuations since it came into use. Residents say the road is a matter of public and economic health.
“They say those people over there will be killing all the ducks and ruining the environment and decimating the country,” said Mayor Stanley Mack of the Aleutians East Borough, much of whose population is Native Aleut and Yupik. “Where do you get off saying that? We’ve been out here for 4,000 years, protecting the country.”
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has long been overshadowed by its northern cousin, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the fight over building the gravel road has lacked the political tension of the fight over drilling for oil. But environmental groups have also long felt that building a road, on an isthmus between two wildlife-rich lagoons in the refuge, would threaten the welfare of a dwindling caribou herd and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, including Pacific black brant and the threatened Steller’s eider.
The 43,000 acres of state land, plus 18,000 more that a local village corporation run by Alaska Natives has offered as part of the swap, cannot compensate, they say. “We’re talking about quality versus quantity,” Ms. Whittington-Evans said of the Wilderness Society.
Critics also note that the designated landing area for the hovercraft in King Cove was placed more than 15 miles away from town, and that the road there follows a course that could easily be extended to Cold Bay.
One local official confirmed that the hovercraft access road had been intentionally built with the goal of one day extending it through the refuge.
“Yes, this community isn’t backing down from building this road,” said the official, Robert S. Juettner, the administrator for the Aleutians East Borough. “And one day it will succeed.”