Stop the costly, unnecessary road through Alaska wildlife refuge
© Getty

Nobody likes to get stuck in the mud or snow.  Nobody likes to get stuck with a fat bill for something that does not do any good.  And nobody likes getting stuck in the same argument again and again and again.  Yet H.R. 218, the King Cove Land Exchange Act, promises all that and more.  The House stuck its head in the sand when it passed H.R. 218 last week; the Senate would do well to stick the bill in a drawer and forget about it.

The point of the bill is to force the secretary of the Interior to allow Alaska to build a gravel road 12 miles through the heart of the pristine Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.  This road would connect King Cove, population 989, with Cold Bay, population 122.  It is a pricey little road, at $2.5 million a mile.  And it is not a very useful little road, because the frequent winter storms, many of them quite violent, that buffet the area will render the road impassable for much of the year.

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The supposed purpose of the road is to facilitate medical evacuations from King Cove.  Of course, it will only facilitate evacuations for people with the good sense to get sick during the parts of the year when an ambulance on the road will not get stuck.  A much better solution to the medical evacuation problem would be a hovercraft.  

Funny thing, last time the Alaska delegation was pushing to have a road built through the Izembek wildlife preserve, the Clinton administration made a deal with them to drop the road idea in exchange for a state-of-the-art hovercraft.  Congress also agreed to pay to upgrade King Cove’s medical facilities and for other improvements.  The total bill was more than $50 million, paid by federal taxpayers.  That is more than $50,000 per resident of King Cove.

That sounds like a pretty egregious expenditure of federal funds until you realize what it bought: Not just improved health care for King Cove but also the preservation of the unique Izembek wilderness.  

Izembek is near the very tip of the Alaskan peninsula, the part that points out toward the Aleutian Islands.  That makes it an ideal stopping off point for migratory birds.  For the Pacific black brant goose, Izembek is the last rest stop before flying non-stop to Mexico for the winter.  (Maybe I should try eelgrass before my next long flight?)

Izembek is also crucial to the Steller eider, a rare and beautiful species of duck.  Magnificent brown bears, some of the largest land-based carnivores in the world, feast on salmon here.  Sea otters, harbor seals, and Steller sea lions depend on Izembek as a place to pull out of the water after feeding in the rich waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.  

No wonder Izembek, despite its modest size, was the first “Wetlands of International Importance” designated in the U.S. back in 1986.

In a sane world, a small community receiving a $50 million buyout would celebrate and move on.  Yet for the past several years, the Alaska delegation has been back at it, again demanding that a road be built right through the middle of the biological heart of the refuge.  Although the $9 million hovercraft we bought them was successful in 30 out of 30 medical evacuations — taking only about 20 minutes to reach Cold Bay – they argue that it does not work.  That is technically true:  because King Cove gave it away!  A definite re-gifting no-no.  

So the negotiation approach did not work because the road advocates would not stick to their deal.  Next came the scientific approach.  Congress enacted legislation in 2009 to require extensive studies of the proposed road, the impact on Izembek, and the state land that the legislation would swap for the roadway.  This legislation required the secretary of the Interior to approve the road if it was in the public interest.  Expert scientists in and out of the Fish and Wildlife Service, concluded that the road made no sense and that the unique value of the land that the road would damage could not be compensated with the addition of other, less environmentally vital land.  

The largest Alaska Native organization and the Association of Village Council Presidents also opposed the road.  

After reviewing the evidence, Interior Secretary Jewell determined in 2013 that the road made no sense and would cause irreparable damage.

Unwilling to keep up their end of a very lucrative deal and unable to make a case on the merits, the Alaska delegation is resorting to brute political force to plow the road through a three-mile wide strip of wilderness wetlands separating two ecologically vibrant lagoons.  It is time to say “no” and make it stick.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


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