A proposal to build a $22 million gravel road through an Alaska wilderness area was rejected Monday by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in a decision favorable for both wilderness conservation and American taxpayers. It caps a more than twenty year-old saga that has already cost taxpayers more than $37.5 million to buy a hovercraft and upgrade a health clinic for the remote town of King Cove, Alaska, population 963.
Had Jewell allowed the road (which some have called “the road to nowhere”) to be built, it would have resulted in the construction of a precedent-setting road through a 300,000 acre wilderness area, an action that is prohibited under the Wilderness Act. This road would have been built through the 315,000 acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, one of the richest and most ecologically diverse places in North America.
After four years of review and more than a hundred consultations with affected communities and stakeholders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in its environmental analysis that:
The weight of this scientific evidence demonstrates that building a road through the refuge would irretrievably damage the ecological functions of the refuge and impair its ability to provide vital support for native wildlife.
Proponents of the road expressed outrage at Jewell’s decision on Tuesday, arguing that the road is needed to facilitate emergency medical evacuations from King Cove to the neighboring community of Cold Bay, which is home to a larger airport. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), for example, said that she was “…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.”
And Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) echoed, “It’s the same sad story — a federal agency that doesn’t listen to Alaskans.”
Yet the federal government has stepped up time and time again with resources for the residents of King Cove. To address the community’s emergency medical needs, the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) crafted an agreement in 1997 that provided $37.5 million in federal funding to upgrade a medical clinic, improve King Cove’s own airport, and even purchase a $9 million hovercraft for residents to use to travel to the larger airport.
Moreover, observers have questioned proponents’ real motivations for the project. Currently, Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc. (wholly owned by Japanese company Maruha Capital Investments, Inc.) is the largest canner in Cold Bay.
According to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, “Until the mid-1990s, Alaskan officials repeatedly stated that the road was intended to quickly transport seafood from King Cove’s large salmon cannery to the airport in Cold Bay, where the product could then be shipped for distribution.” And facilitating the transfer of fish between King Cove and Cold Bay could also benefit the local government’s stated desire to provide direct shipments of King Cove-harvested crab to Asian markets from the Cold Bay airport.
Although a provision in a 2009 law prohibits the use of the proposed Izembek road for commercial purposes, this prohibition could be lifted or changed by a subsequent Congress.
While Murkowski and others argue that lives of the King Cove residents are at risk without the road, it is worth noting that the hovercraft has performed more than 30 successful medical evacuations and, in 2008, was deemed by a local mayor to be a “life-saving machine.” But King Cove leaders decided to terminate its operation because of the expense and instead redouble efforts to build a road through the wilderness area.