Anniversary: Eight years since cruel federal decision to not allow road out of King Cove

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IAN TUTTLE / NATIONAL REVIEW

“I’ve listened to your stories. Now I have to listen to the animals.” former Interior Sec. Sally Jewell, 2013

The 950 residents of King Cove, Alaska, have been trying to build an emergency road to nearby Cold Bay. They have been trying to build the road for 40 years.

King Cove is near the western tip of the Alaskan Peninsula; a few miles west begin the Aleutian Islands. King Cove has a school and two churches and a Chinese restaurant, and its economy is buttressed by the presence of PeterPan Seafoods, one of the largest commercial fishing operations in North America, whose seasonal employees constitute about one-third of the local population. But like most towns in the Alaskan bush, it has only a small clinic and no full-time physician. For everything from minor surgeries to delivering a baby, residents must venture to a proper hospital — 625 miles away, in Anchorage.

Rarely can that be done direct from King Cove. The town’s 3,500-foot gravel airstrip, built in 1970 in the Delta Creek Valley north of town, cannot accommodate large aircraft, and the single- and twin-engine aircraft that use it are particularly vulnerable to King Cove’s weather and geography — which are, to put it lightly, forbidding. The airstrip is situated between two volcanic peaks, which funnel into the valley winds that regularly reach 70 mph. And while clear, calm days do visit King Cove, bad weather — thick fog, lashing rain, driving snow — is Mother Nature’s curse on King Cove a third of the year, sometimes more.

So getting to Anchorage requires first getting to next-door Cold Bay, a hamlet of 100 people, mainly transient state and federal employees, that happens to be home to a 10,000-foot, all-weather airstrip capable of handling the long-distance flight to the state’s largest city. (Why tiny Cold Bay has such an outsized role in King Cove’s story is something of a historical accident: Cold Bay Airport was built in World War II, when this distant patch of the Alaska Territory became a strategic outpost against a possible Japanese invasion. The site chosen, Army engineers agreed then, and locals agree now, was the only one in the area suitable for an airstrip of such size.)

The problem is getting to Cold Bay. In clear weather, that can be done with an air taxi from King Cove’s airstrip. But when the weather is foul, making the trip to Cold Bay requires a boat (and calm seas) or a medevac helicopter (often supplied by the Coast Guard) — and, potentially, more time than a patient has.

To solve this problem, King Cove residents have sought to build a one-lane, gravel road from King Cove to Cold Bay, across the two-mile-wide isthmus that links the towns. Nineteen miles of the 30-mile road already exist. But eleven miles remain — and they traverse the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

This is one infrastructure project in which the Obama administration has not the slightest interest. In August 2013, with King Cove’s decades-long effort seemingly about to come to fruition — a bill having passed Congress, the president having signed it — Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior, flew to King Cove and, to people who told her of loved ones waiting desperately for a rescue helicopter, and of friends perishing in plane crashes in the cloud-swathed mountains, announced: “I’ve listened to your stories. Now I have to listen to the animals.”

Read this story, first published in 2015, at National Review

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On Dec. 23, 2013, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced she would not allow the road from King Cove to Cold Bay, which had been approved by Congress on a bipartisan basis.

Since then, King Cove has had an additional 157 medevacs. Most occurred in dangerous weather conditions and many had to be carried out by the U.S. Coast Guard, risking the lives of crews and patients alike. 

“Sally Jewell made a horrible decision eight years ago, and it is the good people of King Cove who have paid the price ever since. A single medevac is too many, let alone 157. It is simply unconscionable that the federal government has failed to protect these Alaskans’ health and safety, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has made emergency medical access all the more critical,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement on Thursday.

Murkowski reiterated her request to current Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland – who has prioritized tribal consultation – to visit King Cove and finally address this decades-long environmental injustice.

“I am calling on Secretary Haaland to visit King Cove to see the need to protect local residents’ health and safety as soon as possible. The federal government has a trust responsibility to the Tribes of King Cove, but it has been broken for decades. I also urge her to consider alternatives that could help us construct this road in an environmentally sound manner sooner than litigation will allow. As governments, Tribes must deliver a wide range of critical services, including healthcare, to their citizens. The Secretary must recognize this and act now, because King Cove needs this life-saving road more than ever,”Murkowski said.

Numerous King Cove officials today expressed hope that Secretary Haaland would uphold the federal government’s trust responsibility and help them. The officials held a teleconference with Haaland in August and have asked her to visit their community to better understand the need for a life-saving road.

“Secretary Haaland understands our deep-rooted connection to our ancestral land where we and our Aleut families have lived for thousands of years,” said King Cove (Native) Corporation Spokeswoman Della Trumble. “She recognizes the trust responsibility the federal government has to Native people.”

“We’re hopeful U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will visit King Cove soon to talk with residents and see first-hand the daily challenges we face,” said King Cove Mayor Warren Wilson. “Many people in King Cove have either been medevaced themselves or have family members who experienced dangerous medevacs during harsh weather.”

“We’re hopeful the Secretary will support us,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Alvin Osterback. “This issue is an injustice the federal government needs to correct so King Cove residents can feel safe when they require access to a higher level of care.”

17 COMMENTS

  1. King Cove, is a sacrificial lamb in the woke ideology. Even though there would be minimal to no impact to the wildlife, the Left will cling to their high and mighty ideas and vacuous thinking. The real damage from the road will be the brain aneurysms in the industrial conservation complex who lose a fundraising issue. So I guess I can understand their concern.
    I suggest that, based on a scientific examination funded by the State, the risk to King Cove from the eruption of any of the 10 active volcanoes in the vicinity, including Mt. Dutton which has already threatened to destroy their airport, the risk to King Cove is imminent and a State of Emergency exists. A pioneer road connecting to Cold Bay must be built immediately with the Pandemic Largess Funds the State has now available.I would start by purchasing a Rolligon ambulance and establishing an overland connection to Cold Bay.

  2. How about all the other native villages that don’t have all weather roads to airports? Shouldn’t they also be included in the plan? Or maybe build all weather airports in each village? I imagine the people of King Cove are aware that the weather there can be a problem. It seems to me that they would make the wise decision to move to a more weather accessible location if they suffer from life threatening health issues. There is no guarantee that the weather in Cold Bay will be any more hospitable than it will be in King Cove, and its airport could be closed as well.
    If this is, indeed, an injustice, then it is being perpetrated on hundreds of villages throughout Alaska. King Cove is not unique.

    • How many villages are in danger of an eruption from 10 active volcanoes? Most villages, I agree, are subsistence based and have little expectation of an improved evacuation route. King Cove has a relatively short road improvement project available. Cold Bay has an international airport and is much safer from volcanic hazards. A declaration of a State of Emergency should be issued today and the dozers go to work tomorrow.

  3. There have been many times when there was a republican president, and a majority in both houses of congress and this road still did not get built. What about our representatives? Why does one person have the authority to say no or yes to this road? That is what selling your soul to the devil looks like. The only land the Federal government should own is in Washington DC. The states should own all the rest.

    • Spot on. What has our current DC legislators done about this? Road ain’t built…so I guess a whole lot of nothing.

      This never ending plandemic seems to allow for emergency spending and rule breaking, I’m with Chris on this one. Instead of flushing Covid relief funds down the drain, build the road.

  4. Don’t get your hopes up. Haaland will only uphold the tree huggers desires to keep any road from being built. She may visit King Cove and tout how they are all natives to land the land but in the end it will be more of the same coming from this leftist regime.
    I do hope I am wrong on this.

  5. I understand the medical desire for the road. But the ultimate goal is a commercial road. Its just a lot easier to argue in favor of safety rather than money.

    • So what? If there is no appreciable environmental impact, a road will increase commerce and lower the cost of living in King Cove. Do you not use money? Or is it an evil in your woke ideology? Maybe you get it for free from the government. That seems to make the most sense.
      You are correct that they don’t admit they want the road to be used for commerce. If they did, people like you would go apoplectic with socialist jingoism.

      • Really all I meant is that they proponents are not being transparent. I guess that’s woke ideology, not sure.

  6. Not to mention the untold other improved, connecting roads Alaskans imagined having a free hand to reach out and help their fellow man improve for commerce, industry and pursuit of happiness as Alaskans so willingly and valiantly did when they offered to help build and did build the Alcan in solidarity, friendship through American/Canadian jurisdictions in neighborliness and just because we knew we could always count on each other. Until leftists suspended all that. Thanks, left socialists. We do see now how you are. And, now you’d like a rose for it. Nope.

  7. Don’t count on Haaland’s help. She does not care for Alaska native problems. Murkowski and Sullivan made a deal with the devil(Haaland)and are now reeping the rewards. They helped to get her confirmed into her position. Now they are trying to get her to pay her debt. Good luck with that, guys. Play with the devil(pigs), you get muddy, they like it. Oops.

  8. It’s just native lives. They don’t matter to white/liberals. Natives don’t vote in big enough blocks to care about.

    Really want to see racism in its purest form? Democrats.

  9. Please, this road has been, and always will be about fish. A private company wants public money to pay for a road to increase their profit. They couldn’t give a rats a$$ about safety.

    If you are so worried about your health then move to Cold Bay.

Comments are closed.