King Cove road back in the spotlight

Wilderness Society critical of negotiations to complete land swap

A Washington Post report that the Interior Department plans to pursue a land swap that would allow the proposed road between King Cove and Cold Bay on the Aleutian Chain to be completed is prompting strong criticism from The Wilderness Society.

According to the article in the Oct. 15 edition of The Washington Post, Defenders of Wildlife obtained documents detailing efforts of the Interior Department under the Freedom of Information Act. Those documents, primarily internal agency emails, show how much discussion is taking place out of public view between federal, state, local and tribal officials to make the land exchange happen.

The Aleut community of King Cove has been working for over two decades to complete the road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, for non-commercial use only to transport patients in need of emergency medical care to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

“This is an appalling move by the Trump administration to bypass the public process and cut a sneaky, backroom deal that not only would harm Izembek Refuge, but will threaten all of our nation’s refuges, public lands, and many of our bedrock environmental laws,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society.

“This proposed road is an economic-development project for the community of King Cove, and taxpayers should be outraged at this secretive attempt to gut a globally important wildlife refuge – which belongs to all Americans – by transferring public land to private ownership,” she said.

The one-lane stretch of gravel road would allow for completion of a route, so that in medical emergencies people could be brought to the airport and transported for skilled medical care in Anchorage. Opponents of the road have contended there would be commercial uses for the road for economic gain, an accusation denied by Peter Pan Seafoods, which maintains a year-round processing facility at King Cove.

On March 21, 2014, Dale Schwarzmiller, vice president of Alaska Production for the seafood company, issued a statement refuting comments from groups opposed to the road that the land swap was being promoted primarily at the behest of Peter Pan Seafoods for its own economic gain.

“This could not be further from the truth,” Schwarzmiller said. “We understand that politics is a contact sport but highlighting Peter Pan Seafoods’ supposed commercial interests as the villain in this battle is deceitful and cynical.”

In a bipartisan 248-179 vote on July 19, the U.S. House approved legislation to allow the exchange of more than 200 acres of land in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for more than 40,000 acres of state land. King Cove, with a population of some 900 people, has been pushing for years for land access to Cold Bay.

“We’re talking about an 11-mile, single lane, gravel road to provide access to hospitals 600 miles away in Anchorage,” Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told the House as the bill came up for a vote.

King Cove is known for its treacherous winds and inclement weather, which often make it impossible for small aircraft to land the ferry patients in need of emergency services to the airport at Cold Bay.

The alternative has been a three-hour ride in fishing boats in stormy seas to reach that airport.

Between 1980 and 1994, 12 people died during aerial medical evacuations to the Cold Bay airport, and in addition, according to King Cove officials, there have been a number of close calls.