Controversy brews over Alaskan road proposal

Road would provide medical care, but could harm fragile ecosystem

News Washington Post July 23, 2007
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In Alaska, the prospect of building a one-lane, nine-mile gravel road is raising a blizzard of controversy, the Washington Post reported.

Proponents of the road say that if it is not built, isolated native Alaskans living near the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Aleutian Peninsula could die for lack of emergency medical care, the newspaper reported. The state supports the roadbuilding effort, and has agreed that if 200 acres in the preserve are made available for the road, it will donate 42,000 acres of its own land for the refuge.

Environmentalists, however, say the road could destroy one of the most fertile wildlife breeding and feeding sites in the nation, if not the world, according to the Post. The proposed road would run along a thin isthmus between two lagoons that are the exclusive feeding grounds of the Pacific black brant, a small sea goose, and an assortment of other rare or threatened waterfowl. The site also holds historical significance, as it was the first refuge that the United States listed 25 years ago under an international convention on wetlands.

Environmentalists also say construction of the road would weaken protection for officially designated federal wilderness areas, making them susceptible to development whenever Congress wants to make an exception, the Post reported.

"If this crucial portion of Izembek can't be protected as wilderness, then wilderness everywhere is threatened," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Environmentalists also argue that the federal government has already spent $9 million to provide a state-of-the-art hovercraft to transport the isolated people of King Cove across Cold Bay to an all-weather airport and emergency care, according to the newspaper. Building the redundant “road to nowhere,” they say, would cheat taxpayers.

Alaska's two senators and one congressman disagree and have introduced bills exempting the road from a wilderness road-building prohibition, the newspaper reported. Although the proposed Izembek road was the subject of much debate in the late 1990s, proponents say they stand a much better chance of succeeding now.

Aiding their case is the high cost and unreliability of the hovercraft "solution." Also, they say, the unprecedented land swap proposaloffered by Alaska may be an offer too good to refuse.

The offer has even tempted some earlier opponents of the road, since there has been no new federal wilderness designated in Alaska in a quarter-century. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposed the project during the Clinton administration, but the agency's position may have changed, the Post reported. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she has been working with the agency and believes it supports the land swap, the newspaper reported, although according to an agency spokesman last week, no official policy has been requested or developed.

"Some people hear we're talking about building a small road in a wilderness area, and, just on the face of it, they say they won't even think about doing it," Murkowski told the Post. "Our job is to educate people, to let them know this is good for the people of King Cove and also for all Americans because the [federal government] will be getting more than 40,000 new acres of wilderness in exchange for 206."

The Kinzarof and Izembek lagoons, part of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, have been strictly protected since 1960. The lagoons are home to some of the world's largest beds of eelgrass--a nutritious, fast-growing plant that feeds and shelters waterfowl, young fish, crabs and other small invertebrates that are meals for the regulars visitors to the lagoons, including wolverines, brown bear and river otter.

The Pacific black brant also loves eelgrass, and 98% of its worldwide population makes use of the lagoon as a feeding place during migrations. The lagoon also is home to migrating and breeding Steller's eider (an officially threatened diving duck), tundra swans and the emperor goose.

"These are lagoons essential to a whole suite of waterfowl, and there's reason to think a road going through it could have serious and negative consequences," Stan Senner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Alaska, told the Post.

Senner, Hirsche and other opponents say the road would harm the lagoon in many ways, the newspaper reported. Construction work could disrupt the fragile ecology, the road would attract more hunters to the area and pollution from cars and trucks could harm the eelgrass and the animals.

But Della Trumble, president of the King Cove Corp. and an Aleut, said that the fears are unwarranted. She said Aleuts have lived in the region for 4,000 years, and have been superb stewards of the environment, according to the newspaper. The people of King Cove--about 550 full-time Aleut and non-Aleut residents--feel so strongly about building the road that they have offered the refuge another fertile lagoon on nearby tribal land.

"What we want is simple--a safe and direct way to get from King Cove to the airport for medical emergencies," she told the newspaper. "We were not consulted when the wildlife refuge was set up, and so our needs weren't taken into consideration. That just isn't fair."

Lawmakers thought they had resolved that problem in 1998 with a compromise bill that designated $37.5 million toward constructing a medical facility for King Cove, a road to a landing and a hovercraft to transport residents across the bay to Cold Bay Airport, even in foul weather.

But King Cove officials, including Trumble, say the plan has failed. The community, located on a small strip of land below a snow-covered volcano, has been unable to attract a doctor, has had problems keeping the hovercraft running, especially in bad weather, and says the cost of operating and maintaining it is beyond its means, the newspaper reported. Not long after the hovercraft went into partial operation last year, some town leaders brought up the possibility of selling it.

Further complicating the situation is the presence of Peter Pan Seafoods cannery, one of the largest fish canneries in North America, in King Cove. The cannery might someday want to truck salmon, salmon roe and king crab (as well as transient workers) to and from Cold Bay Airport, opponents fear.

Some also worry that the cannery is a hidden force behind the current push for the road, the Post reported. That Peter Pan Seafoods cannery has been a timely campaign contributor to Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), both sponsors of the bill, increases their concern.

But the road’s advocates say that they are working only to give native people dependable access to emergency care, and that Peter Pan plays no role in their efforts, according to the newspaper. In an interview with the Post, Peter Pan manager Dale Schwarzmiller said the company has no plans to use the road if built, but did not rule out the possibility of trucking fish to Cold Bay Airport in the future.

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