President Trump’s Interior Department plans a fresh look at shelved plans to build a single-lane gravel road to King Cove, Alaska, breathing new life into a decades-long debate that has pitted the isolated community seeking a link to the outside world against environmentalists who say the project would wreak havoc on a federal wildlife refuge.
The proposed road, which would connect King Cove to an airport in nearby Cold Bay, was rejected in 2013 by Obama administration Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She said concerns about damage to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — through which the road would run — outweighed arguments in favor of the project and that alternatives to the road could be found.
Critics of Ms. Jewell’s decision, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who has championed the road for years, argue that it is a matter of life and death for the fewer than 1,000 residents of King Cove. With no access to the community by road, residents must be flown via medevac in the event of a medical emergency.
Alaskan officials say at least 19 people have died over the past three decades either waiting in King Cove for medical attention or in medevac crashes as they attempted to reach the Cold Bay airport. A simple road, Ms. Murkowski and others argue, would save lives.
Rep. Don Young, a Republican and Alaska’s lone representative in the House, also has introduced legislation to clear the way for the road to be built. He was sharply critical of the road’s opponents at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing this month.
“The idea that the area is going to be disturbed is nonsense,” Mr. Young said. “It’s pure B.S. that comes out of these interest groups — these environmental groups.”
But opponents of the project say that in addition to the environmental damage a road could cause, alternatives such as boats are more affordable and environmentally friendly.
Although the debate has been raging for decades, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will revisit the project. Mr. Trump has often spoken of the burden federal environmental rules and regulations have placed on the states and on the economy, raising hopes that the roadblock put up under the Obama administration may be removed.
Mr. Zinke “places priority in considering state and local input in decisions before the department. Given the significant interest of the King Cove community, the department is reviewing the issues there and determining its best ability to address them,” said Megan Bloomgren, a spokeswoman for the department.
Ms. Jewell’s 2013 decision also was upheld by a federal judge, who in September 2015 shot down King Cove residents’ claim that she violated proper regulatory procedures in reaching her conclusion. That court case temporarily closed the issue from a political perspective.
New president, new perspective
But with a new administration in place, Ms. Murkowski is redoubling her efforts. She has proposed a massive land swap that she says should mitigate any environmental concerns associated with building the road. Her legislation would turn over roughly 43,000 acres of state land to the federal government in exchange for a 400-acre corridor through the Izembek refuge needed to construct the road. That corridor would impose on only about 0.06 percent of the Izembek refuge.
King Cove has a small airstrip, but Ms. Murkowski and others say it is routinely closed because of poor weather.
The Cold Bay airport, they say, was designed as an all-weather facility and is rarely closed, making it a far better option for the sick or injured in King Cove.
In addition to the reported deaths over the years, Ms. Murkowski points to a case last year of an elderly woman with a hip fracture who had to wait 40 hours before a helicopter could transport her to a hospital in Anchorage.