Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will swap federal land with the Aleut of King Cove, Ak., on Jan. 22, answering decades of pleas from local officials to build a road on roughly 500 acres.
King Cove residents have pursued building an 11-mile, single-lane, non-commercial road between King Cove and the Cold Bay Airport for the past 35 years. In that time, at least 18 people have died from causes attributable to not having a road between the community and airport, according to documents obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.
King Cove, population 989, occupies a remote peninsula in southern Alaska about 30 miles from Cold Bay, a town of 122 with the area’s only all-weather airport. The proposed road cuts through the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, designated in 1960. Congress declared 300,000 acres of the designation as federally protected wilderness in 1980.
King Cove officials have claimed the road is necessary to access the airport in special circumstances, namely medical emergencies. The community has a clinic without a full-time physician, so residents are forced to fly more than 600 miles to Anchorage for major injuries and medical procedures such as childbirth.
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.
In July 2007, two newborn twins died after the mother went into labor prematurely. She could not evacuate out of King Cove because no reliable method of transportation could take her through severe weather. Her babies were born weighing less than two pounds and died, one after a week and the other after two months.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration denied the Cold Bay/King Cove land connection in Dec. 2013. Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the road would cause “irreversible damage” to the refuge and wildlife.
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, TheDCNF has learned.
The roads’ supporters point to similar lanes constructed throughout the wilderness area in the 1940s for hunters. The population of black brant geese in the area increased from about 61,000 in 1941 to 86,000 five years later, despite being hunted eight weeks out of the year, according to documents obtained by TheDCNF.
Environmentalists have lobbied against the road as setting a bad precedent. Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act to bar most development and “permanent improvements” inside wilderness areas. The act contains a few exceptions, such as constructing temporary roads within wilderness to access existing mineral claims.
Though no president has allowed a wilderness road like the one requested by King Cove, the 1964 Wilderness Act gives the president the ability to authorize construction of “facilities needed in the public interest.”
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