The Interior Department rejected a land swap that would have facilitated a road on federal lands from King Cove to Cold Bay, despite significant pressure from Alaska’s congressional delegation to approve it.
Both Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and her predecessor, Ken Salazar, have made several visits to Alaska to assess the proposed exchange, in which the community of King Cove and the state would have given the federal government 56,000 acres of land. In return, federal officials would have handed over a 206-acre road corridor through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to a jet-capable airport in Cold Bay.
In a statement announcing the decision Monday, Jewell cited the department's extensive research into the land swap -- a deal opposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- as a factor in her decision.
“After careful consideration, I support (USFWS's) conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it," Jewell said in the statement. "Izembek is an extraordinary place -- internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species -- and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness."
Jewell says in her Monday statement that local governments had been considering contingency plans in the event a road wasn't built, including both conventional and hovercraft ferries.
In a statement from King Cove authorities on Jewell’s decision Monday, Della Trumble -- a spokesperson for the King Cove Corp. and the Agdaagux Tribal Council -- blasted Jewell for abdicating her responsibilities in her decision.
“We are very insulted that our health, safety and quality of life simply do not matter to her,” Trumble said. “Clearly, the Secretary’s trust responsibility to the Native people is very subjective and, is in fact, meaningless.”
Reached by phone Monday, Trumble says she’s “totally disheartened” by the timing of the decision shortly before Christmas.
“Honestly, it makes a strong statement to exactly what type of person we’re dealing with in the Interior office,” Trumble said. “I believe, honestly, that the choice to pick sports hunters and the environmental community over the Aleut people of King Cove is in (Jewell’s) best interest.”
Both of Alaska’s senators issued statements in opposition to Monday’s decision, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski citing the hypocrisy of allowing hunting in the refuge.
“I am 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, despite the fact that many thousands of birds are killed by hunters annually,” Murkowski said.
Sen. Mark Begich called the move part of a pattern familiar to Alaskans.
“It’s the same sad story -- a federal agency that doesn’t listen to Alaskans,” Begich said. “Even after visiting King Cove and hearing first-hand the tragic consequences of critically ill people being transported through 12-foot seas to get medical care, Washington bureaucrats have determined that the environmental impact of a single lane road somehow outweighs the health of Alaskans. Today’s decision is disappointing but unfortunately not surprising.”
Begich says he'll introduce legislation to build the road when Congress reconvenes next month.
Trumble says the people of King Cove, who locals say have seen at least 12 deaths due to plane crashes and inadequate medical treatment, will keep fighting for a road. She dismisses Jewell’s offer to help with alternatives out of hand, “because no other option is viable.”
“That was explained to her, and explained to the many people who have come to King Cove,” Trumble said.
Channel Two's Adam Pinsker contributed to this report.