Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s recent rejection of a proposal to build a $75 million road through an Alaska wilderness area has sparked a flurry of attacks from right-wing blogs and media outlets — led by Fox News, National Review, and CNS News — who cite the decision as an example of the “The Obama Administration’s War on Humans” and their “despicable callousness toward the value of human life.”
At issue is a proposal to build 20 miles of road through congressionally-protected wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to connect the town of King Cove (population 948), to Cold Bay (population 108) — ostensibly to help residents get access to a larger airport for health care purposes.
But the rub is that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent on alternative solutions to improve medical care — including to fulfill King Cove’s request for a hovercraft and to upgrade its own health clinic — under the condition that the road would therefore not be built. And, if approved, the so-called ‘Road to Nowhere’ would set a precedent as the first new road built in a protected wilderness area in the United States.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has long fought for the road, even trying to hold up nominations to get approval. A review of political gifts to Senator Murkowski and her political action committee, Denali Leadership PAC, reveals a trail of donations made by organizations and lobbyists with a financial stake in the construction of the road. It appears to reinforce what anti-government waste advocates, local emergency personnel, Native Alaskan villages, wildlife professionals, and former agency leaders have long been saying: there is a lot more to the story than what Senator Murkowski and the conservative outlets claim.
Among the political contributions to Murkowski, the most significant are from a firm that has been paid nearly $800,000 since the 1990s to lobby Congress and the Administration on behalf of the Aleutians East Borough (AEB), a long-standing advocate for the road project.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, the firm, Robertson, Monagle, and Eastaugh, (which, according to financial disclosure forms, changed its name to Hoffman, Silver, et al) has contributed more than $11,000 to Murkowski and her Denali Leadership PAC, while being paid more than $350,000 by AEB to lobby on its behalf. Hoffman, Silver et al is listed as having donated an additional $7,700, while collecting more than $435,000 to lobby on behalf of AEB. Lobbying disclosure forms for both Robertson, Monagle and Eastaugh and Hoffman, Silver et al specifically list the firm as lobbying on the Izembek road project on behalf of AEB.
Both Robertson, Monagle, and Eastaugh and Hoffman, Silver, et al also list major seafood producers among their biggest clients, including Trident Seafoods, which is reported to be the largest seafood supplier in North America.
Senator Murkowski also received Peter Pan Seafood’s largest political contribution in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and she is the only member of the Senate they have donated to in 2014. Peter Pan operates the largest cannery in King Cove.
Despite the claims of Murkowski and conservative commentators that the road is needed to help residents get access to health care, former Interior Secretary Bruce noted in an op-ed published Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times that the original purpose of the road — when it was initially proposed in the 1990s — was to expedite the shipping of seafood from the canneries of King Cove to Cold Bay.
The road’s proponents have changed their sales pitch over the last 20 years … They now claim they have no intention of hauling seafood over the road. They say the road is simply needed for emergency medical evacuations. But despite pledges and promises to the contrary, the real purpose for building the road is the same as it ever was: moving fish and workers to and from King Cove’s canneries.
Moreover, Babbitt notes that in a deal he helped reach with former Senator Ted Stevens in 1998, “U.S. taxpayers have already accommodated alternative solutions to King Cove’s concerns about medical emergencies, with the clear understanding that the road would therefore not be built.” Under this agreement, King Cove requested and was provided $37.5 million to upgrade its own health clinic and buy a state-of-the-art hovercraft that the mayor of King Cove praised as a “life-saving machine.”
Yet Murkowski is now back “as if the 1998 deal never happened,” says Babbitt, insisting the road is not for moving seafood. But hauling fish from King Cove to Cold Bay is a long-established goal of the road. A local assemblyman acknowledged in 2010, for example, that one of the benefits of the road is to enable the transportation of “fresh product” from Peter Pan Seafood’s cannery in King Cove to the Cold Bay airport. From here, the local government — the Aleutians East Borough (AEB) — would like to see live crab harvested from King Cove shipped directly from the Cold Bay airport to China and other Asian markets.
For fiscal watchdogs, the Izembek road project evokes the era before Congress banned earmarks in 2010. According to Tom Schatz, president Citizens Against Government Waste, the Izembek road proposal:
“…appears to serve only local and special interests; it is evocative of other infamous Alaskan transportation projects like the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and the $75.5 million airport built last year on an uninhabited island.”