WASHINGTON — A proposed road though the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska still faces a rigorous environmental hurdle, but for the first time, the 800 windswept residents of King Cove have real hope of getting what they've always wanted -- a 25-mile road through the wildlife refuge in the remote Alaska Peninsula community.
The House of Representatives authorized planning to begin on the road in a huge public lands bill that it passed Wednesday. The Senate has already approved the bill, which is headed to the White House for President Obama's signature.
"I think after all these many years, it's hard to absorb that it got this far," said Della Trumble, who watched the House vote on C-SPAN Wednesday afternoon from King Cove. "The reality is setting in. I'm just so pleased, so pleased for this community. I'm just grateful, there's no other word for it. The community is very happy."
The bill is most notable for its designation of 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, which won it the wide support of conservation groups. But it also authorizes a land swap that gives Alaska an easement through the Izembek refuge to build the road, which would link King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay.
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In exchange for the easement, the state and a local tribal corporation would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, mostly to be added to the Izembek refuge. The property transfer is dependent on the outcome of a federal environmental approval, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has the final say on whether the road will be built. If it is built, it must be gravel and single-lane, with cable barriers on either side to prevent off-road driving. Other than taxis, the road would be restricted to commercial traffic.
Although most conservation groups supported the overall lands bill, many expressed concerns about building a road through the Izembek refuge -- and at one point dubbed it the "road to nowhere."
The refuge is widely considered one of the most significant bird sanctuaries in the world -- as many as 130,000 Pacific Black Brant feast on the rich eelgrass beds of a protected lagoon. Thousands of geese, ducks and shorebirds winter or migrate through the refuge, said David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.
"Just amazing birds, hundreds of thousands of birds," Raskin said. "The bird populations are magnificent and they rely heavily on those eel grass beds. A road through the isthmus there would go right through the heart of the eel grass beds."
They will object to the road during the environmental review, Raskin said, and also will ask President Barack Obama to single out the road in a signing statement when he signs the legislation.
Trumble said that the native people who live in King Cove know they will be good environmental stewards of their own community -- even with the road.
"I believe we know more than anyone else the importance of protecting the resources," she said.
King Cove has long sought the road as an alternative route to the airport. Without a road, they must take a short flight across the bay to the airport in Cold Bay, or the $9 million hovercraft obtained for the community by former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. The World War II-era airport in Cold Bay is home to the third-longest runway in the state and unlike the smaller King Cove airport, it stays open in all weather conditions.
King Cove residents would prefer to drive there, if they could. They're concerned about the ongoing operating costs of the hovercraft as well as its reliability for medical evacuations. Over the past three years, the city of King Cove has spent $165,000 lobbying Congress. The local government had relied on Washington lobbyist Steve Silver, a former Stevens aide with Republican ties, but last year hired John Tagami, a lobbyist with Democratic connections, to help press their case.
"This has been an important issue to the city of King Cove, so yes, we've spent a lot of time and a lot of money," said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss. "But this has been a real important issue to people. The people of King Cove do not want to give up on this."