A proposed road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska has been controversial for years. Photo: Kristine Sowl / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Environment | Health | National | Politics

Alaska Native village still seeking approval for 'life-saving road'





Indian Country remains wary of Republican president-elect Donald Trump but change in the nation's capital could benefit a rural Native community in Alaska.

For years, leaders in King Cove, an Aleut village, have sought approval to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a federal property. They say it would protect lives by making it easier for residents to get to the nearest all-weather airport.

But the Obama administration rejected the project on the eve of the Christmas holiday in 2013, citing environmental concerns. Since then, at least 55 people have had to be flown out of King Cove in order to obtain medical care.

"A life-saving road remains the best and only real option to help the people of King Cove," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). "People have died without it."

King Cove has an airstrip but poor weather keeps flights grounded for a good portion of the year. That means residents must travel by boat to the airport in Cold Bay.

But even that journey can be treacherous due to conditions on the waters. And once people arrive at Cold Bay, they have to climb up an unsteady ladder to reach the dock, a tough move for elders and those in need of medical attention.

"How much more do we need to endure, particularly when there is such a reasonable, dependable and affordable solution to our transportation access problem to the Cold Bay Airport?" Della Trumble, a resident and spokesperson for King Cove, said at a hearing in April 2016.

To address the situation, Alaska's Congressional delegation is pushing to authorize the road through the federal refuge. With Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, in addition to the White House come January 20, the village's allies believe they will finally see success.

“I believe with a new president and the Senate we’ll be able to get some of this legislation done very quickly," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who introduced H.R.218 on January 3, the first day of the 115th Congress.

Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) joined the effort on Wednesday with a companion bill in the Senate.

"For years, the people of King Cove have been pleading with the Interior Department to be allowed to access their land in order to get necessary medical care,” Sullivan said in a press release. “For years, they’ve been told that protecting birds is more important than their health and safety. This is unconscionable."

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Murkowski is likely to bring up the issue when Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana), Trump's nominee to be Secretary of the Interior, goes before her panel on January 17. If confirmed to the post, he would oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the federal refuge system.

Zinke has a favorable record on Indian issues although, like Trump, he has expressed concerns about transferring public lands out of federal control. The road legislation includes a swap in which Fish and Wildlife would gain property from the state of Alaska.

"For far too long, residents of King Cove have had to travel by helicopter or boat to access the Cold Bay airport during a medical emergency," Gov. Bill Walker (I) said in a press release.

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