The Department of the Interior (DOI) agreed to swap tracts of land with a remote Alaskan village wanting to build a gravel road through a stretch of protected wilderness, The Washington Post reports.
The 11-mile road would run between King Cove and the Cold Bay Airport, a passageway King Cove has sought for decades. The project has been continually blocked by federal officials not willing to compromise the small stretch of land that runs through the 315,000 acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge provides a feeding ground and habitat for migratory birds, bears, caribou and other species.
Though no formal agreement has been made, residents of King Cove, Alaska, “are encouraged that this administration has a different attitude about this road, and … that the needs of the people in King Cove can be met. At the same time, the special qualities of the Izembek refuge can continue,” City Administrator Gary Hennigh told WaPo.
King Cove officials say the airport access is necessary for the town’s 925 residents in case of medical emergencies too severe for the local clinic to handle, CNN reports.
“King Cove is an isolated community accessible only by air and sea. The absence of the road has meant life-and-death for the inhabitants of King Cove,” DOI Spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Daily Caller News Foundation last month. “The careful construction of an 11-mile single lane gravel road in a manner that conforms with all applicable environmental laws, rules, and regulations and gives easier access to the local hospital makes sense.”
Members of Alaska’s indigenous population have petitioned for the road for 27 years, according to a resolution the National Congress of American Indians passed in 2015. Without the gravel road “lifeline,” the only other ways to access the King Cove airport is by boat or charter plane. Those modes are reliable 60 to 70 percent of the time, according to the resolution.
At least $50 million has been spent on developing an alternate travel means and route that would not affect the protected land. Nothing has worked so far, however.
Sierra Club Land Protection Program Director Athan Manuel was immediately critical of the proposed land swap and the road through Izembek.
“Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke’s plan to construct a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is as disastrous as it was when it was first proposed decades ago,” Manuel said in a statement. “Study after study has shown that a road through this pristine refuge will still pose winter safety risks while wasting millions of taxpayers’ dollars.”
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