Wilderness bill could bring road to Alaska's King Cove

WASHINGTON -- Many people watched closely Thursday as the U.S. Senate passed a massive lands bill designating more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, but none with as much focus as the Alaskans from King Cove.

The legislation, which pulls together 150 public lands, parks and water bills in one package, also includes a provision that authorizes a land swap and allows planning to begin for a 25-mile gravel road through a national wildlife refuge from the community of King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay.

The community of King Cove has sought the road for the past decade as an alternative to the hovercraft used to travel across the bay to get to the airport in Cold Bay. The World War II-era airport in Cold Bay is home to the third-longest runway in the state; unlike the smaller King Cove airport, it stays open in all weather conditions.

From the Senate gallery, Della Trumble and others from the community watched the Senate vote 73-21. They've worked for years to get the road, which they say is necessary for medical emergencies.

"I watched the vote 12 years ago, and watching the vote today, (it) brought a lot back, just realizing that this has been a long process," said Trumble, referring to the first vote that authorized the hovercraft for the community.

The road, which cuts a controversial swath through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, is just one of hundreds of projects in the 1,200-page bill. It also authorizes water projects on Indian reservations, declares some rivers as wild and scenic and designates 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states.

Critics who voted against the bill include Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who complained about the proposed spending in the package. Coburn cited the road through the refuge as well as $5 million on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida and $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., six years from now.

The Alaska portion of the legislation gives the state a seven-mile easement through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The easement allows the state to complete a 25-mile gravel road that will link Cold Bay with King Cove. In exchange, the state is expected to transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government. Much of that land would go to the Izembek refuge; part would be designated as wilderness.

Residents have access to a hovercraft to cross the bay, but say they need the road to evacuate people with health emergencies during inclement weather.

Some conservationists say that it is unprecedented to allow a road through a wildlife refuge and that cars and trucks on the road will disrupt migratory birds in the refuge as well as other wildlife that pass along the narrow isthmus. However, the bill requires an extensive federal environmental review before it can be built. It also prohibits the road from being used by commercial traffic.

"What we've created through this bill is a process," said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "This moves the community a step forward in the process of someday getting the road."

A road is still years away, Trumble said, and that has been hard to explain to people at home.

"We've achieved an ability to start a process," she said, chuckling at her own bureaucratic-speak.

As a whole, conservation groups supported the package because it had so many provisions to protect rivers and designate wilderness. The package did not have support from groups such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which complained that the bill could curtail domestic energy development by designating so many federally owned acres as wilderness.

The bill goes next to the House of Representatives, which has pledged to take up the Senate version and send it on to the president.