WASHINGTON — Opponents of a proposed road through Alaska's Izembek Wildlife Refuge have enlisted the help of an environmental heavyweight: former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who served in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet, has signed a letter asking the current occupant of the office, Ken Salazar, to find that a road through the refuge is not in the public interest.
If Salazar agrees to the road, it would the first-ever road authorized in a wilderness area in the 45-year history of the Wilderness Act, Babbitt warned, setting a "dangerous precedent."
The road could "jeopardize all the wilderness lands that we and so many others have worked tirelessly to set aside for future generations: every national park, refuge and wilderness area that the Department is pledged to protect," Babbitt wrote to Salazar.
The Interior Department is reviewing Babbitt's letter, said spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff.
Conservationists fear that if development is allowed at Izembek, it puts at risk other federally protected wilderness set aside to protect wilderness and habitat. The refuge, on a narrow isthmus in the windswept Alaska Peninsula, hosts hundreds of thousands of migratory birds as well as the caribou, wolves, bears, fox and other wildlife.
"They need to take a comprehensive look at this area," said, Maribeth Oakes of the Wilderness Society’s refuge program. That includes focusing on potential oil and gas development in Bristol Bay and what it means for the refuge, Oakes said.
The letter was signed by five other former Interior Department officials, including Jerald Stroebele, who was the Alaska refuge supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1991 to 2006.
Legislation signed into law this spring by President Barack Obama authorizes the Interior Department's environmental review of the road proposal. The Interior Department is currently in the process of determining the scope of the review; whether the road is built depends on the outcome of that review.
Residents of King Cove have long sought the road as an alternative route to the airport, and have traveled repeatedly to Washington to make their case. Without a road, they must take a short flight across the bay to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay. They also have the option of a hovercraft, which local leaders say is expensive to maintain and unreliable in the worst weather conditions.
If Salazar authorizes the road, it paves the way for a land swap that gives the state of Alaska an easement through the Izembek refuge to build a road from King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay.
In exchange for the easement through the refuge, the refuge would gain about 61,000 additional acres. If it is built, it must be a gravel, single-lane road with cable barriers on either side to prevent off-road driving. Besides taxis, the road would be off limits to most other commercial traffic.