Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spent Friday in King Cove, hearing from community leaders and residents on a controversial land exchange proposal that would allow King Cove to complete a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, to neighboring Cold Bay.
Frequent stormy weather prevents many flights into and out of King Cove. Cold Bay has an all-weather airport that King Cove residents say they need access to, especially when there is a medical emergency.
"In terms of doing an evacuation out of King Cove, it's one of the worst conditions, if not the worst for a community that the Coast Guard services in the entire state," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski who has long advocated for the road to be built.
Sen. Murkowski and Secretary Jewell took a tour of the local clinic and listened to staff as they shared some of the challenges they face with limited access to an all-weather airport. Depending on the weather, medical treatment is sometimes delayed for hours if a medevac flight is unable to land in King Cove.
Etta Kuzakin, president of the Agdaagux Tribal Council, lost a child when she went into early labor and could not get to Anchorage in time for a C-section.
"If I was able to get from here to Cold Bay much earlier, if there was a road that could've taken me, I would've had four children right now and not three," said Kuzakin. "There's nothing more important than human life."
Kuzakin had another scare in March, when at 8 months pregnant, she went into labor and had to wait hours for the Coast Guard to transport her to Cold Bay, before she could be flown to Anchorage. She shared her story at a community meeting that Secretary Jewell and Sen. Murkowski attended.
"Had I not been able to get out, she, nor I would be here to tell our stories," said Kuzakin as she held her 5 month-old baby.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service rejected a plan in February, that would have allowed the road, citing environmental concerns over critical habitat in the refuge. As part of the proposed Izembek Land Exchange, the state and the King Cove Corporation would give the federal government 56,000 acres of land in exchange for 206 acres for the road corridor.
Secretary Jewell says it will be a difficult decision. She says she will review all of the material before making a reason judgement, based on all of the facts.
"It's certainly a very passionate community that has been vocal in its interests and that has been clear as well so I want to make sure that I respect the facts that are there and take all of them into account," said Jewell.
She did not provide a time frame as to when she expects to make her decision.
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