WASHINGTON — A group of King Cove, Alaska, residents are in Washington this week attempting to persuade Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reverse her rejection of a road through a national wildlife refuge that would allow the isolated community access to medical flights in bad weather.
Jewell said Wednesday she hopes to find a solution that doesn’t involve a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a world-class sanctuary for migratory birds.
“We need suggestions from the people in the area on what alternatives would be potentially viable to them if a road does not go through,” she told the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee on the Interior.
But King Cove residents, who have been lobbying for the road for decades, told reporters there is no alternative.
“Everything the secretary is proposing, we know is not going to work because we live there,” said Agdaagux Tribal President Etta Kuzakin, who had to be evacuated by Coast Guard helicopter when she needed an emergency Caesarean section after going into early labor last year.
The village of 950 residents has a clinic, but no hospital or doctor. Medical procedures often require a 600-mile flight to Anchorage, and the King Cove airstrip is frequently closed as gale-force winds race between the North Pacific and the nearby Bering Sea. The village residents want the single-lane gravel road to link King Cove with an all-weather airport at Cold Bay, 22 miles away.
The community attributes more than a dozen deaths through the years to lack of timely medical treatment or plane crashes out of King Cove. Bonita Babcock, community health aide at the King Cove clinic, said critically ill patients can wait for hours to get out of King Cove when “this simple road could make all the difference.”
Jewell said Wednesday that her staff is talking to the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers about finding alternative solutions to a road. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told Jewell that the search for such an alternative has been going on unsuccessfully for decades.
“I appreciate you are new to the issue of King Cove,” Murkowski told the Interior secretary. “But to them, this has been almost a lifetime of struggling.”
Jewell announced her decision to reject the road on Dec. 23, saying that she supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife 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.”
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge supports nearly all the world’s population of Pacific black brant _ a small goose _ as well as grizzlies, caribou, salmon and millions of shorebirds and waterfowl.
The proposal rejected by Jewell involved transferring more than 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands to the refuge in exchange for access to the road corridor.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he urged Jewell to reverse her rejection of the road in a meeting this week that also included the group of King Cove residents visiting Washington. Begich said he facilitated an agreement in which Jewell promised a prompt decision on King Cove’s official request for her to reconsider her decision.
The late Sen. Ted Stevens led a bid to find an alternative to the road that in 1997 resulted in Congress providing roughly $37.5 million in federal funding to upgrade the King Cove medical clinic, improve the King Cove airstrip, and build an unpaved road to a hovercraft terminal from King Cove.
The Aleutians East Borough ran the hovercraft service for three years until was discontinued in 2010, with the boough deeming it unreliable and too expensive to maintain.