A land swap giving the federal government 43,000 acres of State land, and the people of King Cove access to a life-saving airport at Cold Bay has moved out from a key House committee.
For years, an 11-mile gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has been blocked by the Department of Interior. Environmentalists had the ear of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who denied King Cove a road to the airport.
On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee passed legislation introduced by Rep. Don Young in January. House Resolution 218, the King Cove Land Exchange Act, authorizes a land exchange to allow construction of a one-lane gravel road.
The committee passage of H.R. 218 comes one day after the Department of Interior issued a permit to the State of Alaska to begin an initial survey on construction of the road.
The land transfer would give 43,0093 acres of State land to the Department of the Interior in exchange for some 206 acres of refuge land to build the road. The refuge exceeds 300,000 acres.
Young’s bill passed 23-14 and now heads to the full House, where it’s expected to pass.
“I remind everybody in this room, 19 people have died because they didn’t have this road. Just put yourself in that position, as you sit here,” said Congressman Young during the Committee meeting to review the bill. “If you’d like to have your mother, or your sister, or your brother or your aunt or someone die because there isn’t a road that’s 11 miles long. And the national wildlife refuge could get 43,000 acres for 206 acres. This is a deal of a lifetime for the Refuge… We are very frankly going to go forth because of the Administration. Sally Jewell was wrong. She actually believed a goose was more important than human life…I want you to understand that this is crucial to human life.”
Young introduced the bill on Jan 3 and identical legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Dan Sullivan.
The corridor accounts for 0.06 percent of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Some 131 acres of the proposed 206-acre project are federally designated as wilderness.
“Secretary Jewell’s heartless denial of the King Cove emergency access road was a willful and deliberate dismissal of human life in the name of wildlife; it represented one of the worst government actions I’ve seen in all my years in Congress.” – Rep. Don Young
“And since that decision, the community has experienced 53 medevacs in often treacherous conditions,” Young said. “This legislation is an important step to ensuring the people of King Cove have safe and reliable transportation during medical emergencies. It’s appalling that this fight has taken decades, but I’m extremely optimistic that under the current administration we can finally resolve this issue and facilitate the construction of this 11-mile, life-saving road from King Cove to Cold Bay ”
King Cove is located between two volcanic mountains near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, about 625 miles southwest of Anchorage. The winds in the area are legendary and keep flights grounded routinely. Nearby Cold Bay’s airport has the fifth-longest runway in Alaska and has far better weather conditions.
The gravel road that is being sought would be just three miles longer than the distance between the Capitol in Juneau to the Juneau International Airport.
In the past, plane crashes have led to multiple fatalities that could have been avoided had road transportation been an option. Without the road, local residents continue to be at the mercy of high winds, dense fog, and strong storms that prevent safe and timely transportation during medical emergencies, Young said.
The Wilderness Society issued a press release saying the road is a boondoggle and said the organization will fight its construction.
The Wilderness Society’s Alaska Regional Director, Nicole Whittington-Evans said: “Like other national wildlife refuges across the country, Izembek is under attack from those who want to take over federal public lands and return them to state control for road construction and resource development.”
Apparently, in the eyes of the Wilderness Society, an exchange of 43,000 acres for a mere 206 acres is not a net plus, but rather, an “attack.”