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Land Deal for Alaska Road Draws Environmental Criticism

Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed off on a land transfer Monday that will allow for the construction of a road in Alaska through a portion of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The road, which proponents say is necessary to connect the remote community of King Cove to a large, all-weather airport for emergency medical evacuation in poor weather, has come under criticism from conservationists.

The one-land, 12-mile road would connect King Cove to Cold Bay. The land exchange states the road will be used “primarily” for health and safety purposes “and generally for noncommercial purposes. The commercial transport of fish and seafood products, except by an individual or a small business, on any portion of the road shall be prohibited.”

In bad weather, King Cove residents have to travel by boat or helicopter to seek emergency medical care in Cold Bay, whose airport has a longer runway and serves as the area’s main link to Anchorage 600 miles away. Due to King Cove’s isolation in the past, 18 people have died in plane crashes or waiting to get medevac service out of King Cove, according to the Interior Department.

“Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that’s just wrong,” Zinke said. “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.”

Environmentalists are concerned about the effect the road will have on the birds that migrate through the area, as well as other wildlife. In summer, 98 percent of the world’s population of the goose Pacific black brant breeds at the refuge. Tens of thousands of the threatened Steller’s eider sea ducks stay there to molt in the winter as well.

“Izembek National Wildlife Refuge protects some of the world’s most unique, fragile and essential wildlife habitat, but this administration thinks nothing of bulldozing a road through the middle of it, scarring the refuge forever,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. “Izembek Refuge belongs to all Americans, and we will fight this illegal backroom deal that would irreparably damage this vital wilderness preserve in court.”

The House passed a bill authorizing a land swap for the road in July, but the bill has not yet passed the Senate.

Alaska’s Department of Transportation assisted in survey work last summer to help establish the specific route the road will take. DOT has estimated construction to cost $30 million, which the state is expected to largely fund, and take about a year once design and other pre-construction work is finished.