Murkowski mulls ‘hold’ on Interior nominee over road's rejection

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) might hold up Senate confirmation of President Obama’s nominee for Interior secretary because the Interior Department won’t approve construction of a road that Alaskan lawmakers call vital to healthcare access for a remote Aleutian village.

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Interior announced this week that it does not intend to allow a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a project advocates say is needed so that residents of King Cove can reach an all-weather airport in Cold Bay for medical evacuations.

Murkowski told The Hill Thursday she would consider placing a procedural “hold” on the nomination of Sally Jewell over the proposed road. “It may be that I have got to make threats, it may be that I have got to hold something up, I am hoping that I don’t have to,” Murkowski said in the Capitol.

She noted that the road decision is not final and that outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar can reverse course. Interior this week said that allowing the road would imperil a vital wilderness area that’s home to many species, and that there are other options for medical evacuations.

But Murkowski has blasted the preliminary decision.

“I never thought that I was going to be in this situation where I was going to have to explain to the world where King Cove was and why this 10-mile stretch of gravel road was so important,” Murkowski said. “I felt the [the Interior Department’s] Fish & Wildlife Service was going to do the right thing. They haven’t, we have got to correct it.”

Murkowski said she raised the matter with Jewell when the nominee, who is the CEO of outdoor gear giant REI, called her on Thursday.

“She just wanted to do a personal reach-out and said that she looked forward to getting together with me to talk about issues in more substance,” Murkowski said.

“I said, I am one who usually defers to the president on his nominees, and I said, I want to be able to do that, I want to be helpful here, [but] I need the people of Interior to understand how wrongheaded I think this proposal is,” Murkowski said.

Interior announced a preliminary decision Tuesday not to allow a land exchange that would have enabled the road through the refuge to go forward, and vowed to work with state officials and area residents on alternatives that enable healthcare access.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s preferred alternative would protect the heart of a pristine landscape that congress designated as wilderness and that serves as vital habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, shorebirds and waterfowl – including 98 percent of the world’s population of Pacific black brant,” Salazar said in a statement.

“After extensive dialogue and exhaustive scientific evaluation, the agency has identified a preferred path forward that will ensure this extraordinary refuge and its wilderness are conserved and protected for future generations,” he said.

Murkowski blasted Interior’s preliminary decision in a floor speech Thursday, noting the perils of flying into King Cove rather than the all-weather airport in Cold Bay.

“Over the past 30 years, more than a dozen people have died, and many others have been injured, from aviation accidents involving airplanes flying into or out of King Cove, many because of medical emergencies where pilots felt they had no choice but to risk the trip,” Murkowski said, according to her office.

She said Interior has “largely ignored the threats to Native residents’ lives in deciding that theoretical small impacts to a tiny sliver of a refuge override health and safety issues for real human beings.”

But Interior officials said this week that there are options to ensure medical access without building a road through the wildlife refuge.

“We will continue to work with the State of Alaska and local communities to support viable alternatives to ensure the continued health and safety of King Cove residents,” said Geoff Haskett, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s regional director for Alaska.

The Fish & Wildlife Service noted that a hovercraft has been successfully used in the past for medical evacuations.

“In November 2010, the Aleutians East Borough decided to suspend hovercraft services between King Cove and Cold Bay. If the proposed road through the refuge is not constructed, the Borough has indicated that it will develop an alternative transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay. The Borough has indicated that an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry could be more technically and financially viable than a hovercraft,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a summary of its recommendation.