Department of the Interior on YouTube: Agreement Signed to Build Life Saving Road
Environment | National | Politics

Trump administration paves way for contested road to Native village




The change in power in the nation's capital has proven beneficial for a Native community thousands of miles away.

The Department of the Interior has paved the way for a life-saving, yet highly controversial, road to King Cove, an Aleut village in Alaska. An agreement that starts the process was signed by Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday, a year after President Donald Trump took office.

“The people of King Cove deeply appreciate the dedication and hard work Secretary Zinke and his team have put in to make this land exchange possible,” Della Trumble, a spokesperson for the King Cove Native Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation whose shareholders include local residents, said in a press release distributed by the department.

“Access to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay is truly a matter of life and death to us, so we are eternally grateful to all those who have listened to the people of our region," Trumble added. "Today’s agreement goes a long way toward restoring our faith that the federal government takes seriously its trust responsibility to the Aleut and to all Alaska Natives.”

The road is controversial because it would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a federally-protected facility. The Obama administration had rejected the project back in 2013, citing concerns about birds, animals and the environment.

But King Cove and politicians in Alaska say it's more important to save lives. The road would make it easier for residents to get to the airport in Cold Bay in order to access medical services that most others take for granted.

Della Trumble, a resident and spokesperson for King Cove, with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., on January 22, 2018. DOI

“Common sense and compassion have finally prevailed,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a long-time champion for King Cove, said in a press release. “For decades, the people of King Cove have asked for what virtually every other American already takes for granted—a reliable way to protect their health and safety and improve their quality of life.”

King Cove, population 989, 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.

The conditions have proven deadly for residents: a total of 18 people have died in plane crashes or waiting to be medevaced from King Cove since the creation of the refuge in 1980. Residents believe a 30-mile, single-lane road to the airport will change the situation for the better.

"The people of King Cove have been stewarding the land and wildlife for thousands of years and I am confident that working together we will be able to continue responsible stewardship while also saving precious lives," Zinke said after signing the agreement at Interior's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The agreement begins a process for a land swap between the King Cove corporation and the federal government. The road could then be built on land transferred out of the refuge and to the corporation.

Conservation groups, though, are promising to stop the road from being built.

"Izembek Refuge belongs to all Americans, and we will fight this illegal backroom deal that would irreparably damage this vital wilderness preserve in court," Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.

A bill that would also approve the road is pending in the 115th Congress. The House passed H.R.218, the King Cove Road Land Exchange Act, last July but it has not yet been taken up in the Senate.

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Life-saving road for Native village inches forward in Alaska and in D.C. (June 27, 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)
Judge sides with DOI in dispute over Alaska Native village road (September 25, 2015)