A sign at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo: J. Stephen Conn
Environment | National | Politics

House approves bill to authorize life-saving road for Native village in Alaska

A bill to authorize a life-saving road for a Native village in Alaska has cleared a big hurdle on Capitol Hill but not without considerable debate.

Most Indian bills are passed in the House under a suspension of the rules because they are considered non-controversial. That wasn't the case with H.R.218, the King Cove Road Land Exchange Act.

The road at issue would make it easier for residents of King Cove, an Aleut village, to get to the nearest all-weather airport. Supporters call the project -- which has been in the works for years -- a matter of life and death.

"Since the refusal to build this road, 19 people, my constituents, Aleut people from King Cove, have died because they could not be evacuated to the airport so you could fly them out," Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the sponsor of the bill, said during debate on Thursday.

But since the one-lane, 11-mile gravel road cuts through a portion of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a federally-protected property, Democrats spoke out against H.R.218. They said there are other ways to help the residents of King Cove get the services they need without jeopardizing the environment.

"People's lives do not hang in the balance," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources. "We can protect public health and the refuge if we abandon this bill and work together on a better solution."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: U.S. House of Representatives Debate on H.R.218, the King Cove Road Land Exchange Act

Republicans, though, outnumber Democrats in the House. They easily beat back two amendments, including one offered by Grijalva, that would have made it more difficult to build the road.

With the amendments out of the way, nearly every Republican in the chamber voted in favor of H.R.218 while almost every Democrat voted against it. The final roll call was 248 to 179 in favor of passage.

But the battle isn't over yet. While the Senate has yet to take up a companion version, S.101, supporters remain optimistic about getting the measure to President Donald Trump.

Trump has signed more than 40 bills into law since taking office in January. But none have been stand-alone Indian bills.

“After years of needless suffering, including 63 medevacs since December 2013 alone, I am grateful to have bipartisan support in Congress and – finally - an administration that understands why a road is the best and only option to truly protect the health and safety of local residents,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the sponsor of S.101, said in a press release after the vote.

Murkowski met with Trump in March and brought up the road. Support from the White House would indeed represent a major change because the Obama administration refused to approve construction due to concerns about disrupting the environment in the refuge.

King Cove, population 938, has an airstrip but poor weather keeps flights grounded for a good portion of the year. That means residents must travel by boat to an airport in Cold Bay.

But even that journey can be treacherous due to conditions on the water. 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.

"While the work is not yet finished, the passage of H.R. 218 is a critical step towards actually building this necessary and life-saving road," Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I), who enjoys a strong relationship with tribes and Native corporations, said on Thursday. "State and federal agencies, our congressional delegation, and the residents of King Cove are continuing to work well towards this shared goal, and I look forward to seeing additional progress.”

Related Stories:
Lawmakers debate another Indian bill though none have gone to Trump yet (July 19, 2017)
Life-saving road for Native village inches forward in Alaska and in D.C. (June 27, 2017)
Key House committee under fire for moving slowly on tribal agenda (June 21, 2017)
House panel takes up bill to approve road for Alaska Native village (April 4, 2017)
Alaska Native village still seeking approval for 'life-saving road' (January 11, 2017)