Environmentalists are suing the Trump administration to stop a proposed road connecting an isolated Alaskan community from the area’s only all-weather airport, Anchorage Daily News reports.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approved a land swap Jan. 22 trading 500 acres of federally protected wilderness for one acre from King Cove, Alaska. Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges and eight other environmental groups sued Zinke, the Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday to kill the deal.
“Congress said that you can have a road through these areas and here’s how you get it — not by trading lands away but by going through these specific steps,” Trustees for Alaska attorney Katie Strong told Anchorage Daily News. “If they can trade away land any time a development project comes along, none of Alaska’s public lands are safe under this administration.”
King Cove officials have asked for 500 acres running through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to build an 11-mile road connecting their community to the Cold Bay airport for decades, referencing the town’s need for a land route to the airport in case of emergencies. At least 18 people have died in less than four decades because King Cove lacks a reliable route to the airport during severe weather.
King Cove’s only medical facility is a small clinic with no full-time doctor. For serious injuries and other operations, like child delivery, residents must fly to Anchorage, more than 600 miles away.
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge houses habitat for grizzly bears, caribou, salmon and, for a time every year, nearly every Pacific black brant goose in the world. Opponents of the road say it would disturb ecological balance of the reserve and could have severe effects on the birds.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration denied the petition to for the road in December 2013. Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the road would cause “irreversible damage” to the refuge and wildlife.
The Alaskan community has relied on ships, medevacs, a hovercraft and a small airport to shuttle people to Cold Bay. Nothing has been reliable or sustainable, however, due to Alaska’s extreme weather and the high cost of operating machines like a hovercraft.
Since 2013, 68 medevacs have evacuated King Cove residents to the airport for life-threatening injuries or other immediate medical needs. Because the community is isolated, each medevac costs U.S. taxpayers as much as $210,000 a trip.
“This is a lifeline to this community and it allows us to provide many more search and rescue operations for sick and injured personnel in this particularly weather-challenged, remote environment,” Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said at a press conference held after Zinke signed the deal.
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