Alaskan tribal members have fought for decades to win approval for a 12-mile road between their remote Aleutian fishing village and a critical all-weather airport, and the federal government’s shutdown wasn’t going to get in their way.
At an emotional ceremony Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement for a land exchange that will allow construction of a road between King Cove and an all-weather airport in Cold Bay.
The Obama administration blocked the project because of concerns about its impact on a wildlife refuge.
Signing the deal on behalf of the King Cove Native Corp. was finance manager Della Trumble, an Agdaagux tribal member who said the issue is “truly a matter of life and death to us.”
“On behalf of the community of King Cove, and the many people that have died and have suffered, we are so grateful, beyond grateful, to those who have supported us,” Ms. Trumble said at the ceremony in Washington. “Secretary Zinke, the administration, we thank you very much. This has been a long battle.”
The gravel road will allow residents of the isolated community to drive through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the all-weather airport, enabling them to more quickly reach medical facilities in Anchorage on days when storms and high winds make it too dangerous for them to fly out of their local airport.
Eighteen deaths have been blamed on the lack of access, but Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the project in 2013, saying “we owe it to future generations” to avoid running a single-lane road through the refuge.
Mr. Zinke said, “Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that’s just wrong.
“The people of King Cove have been stewarding the land and wildlife for thousands of years, and I am confident that working together we will be able to continue responsible stewardship while also saving precious lives,” Mr. Zinke said in a statement.
Under the agreement, the federal government will do a land swap of no more than 500 acres with the King Cove corporation, which owns property on the exterior boundaries of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula National wildlife refuges.
Among those who attended the signing ceremony were Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republicans who have fought for years to build the road.
“This is a great day not only for King Cove, but for all of Alaska,” Mr. Young said in a statement. “In 2013, Sally Jewell decided that birds were more important than people, and today we finally have a Secretary who takes the life and death of Alaska Natives seriously.”
Environmentalists at the Center for Biological Diversity decried the deal, accusing the Trump administration of moving to “bulldoze” the wildlife refuge and vowing to file a lawsuit to stop the project.
“You can’t make a fair trade for this kind of wilderness, because there’s nothing else like it,” Randi Spivak, the center’s public lands program director, said in a statement. “This land swap violates the purpose of the refuge. It will devastate wildlife and destroy congressionally designated wilderness. There are other, safer options for King Cove residents.”
Since Ms. Jewell blocked the project, more than 60 people have been evacuated by plane or boat, often by the U.S. Coast Guard, from the town of about 900, whose residents include members of the Agdaagux and Belkofski tribes.
“It’s good policy to protect our designated wilderness, but what if that wilderness is isolating an entire community and putting lives at risk? It exemplifies how officials in Washington can dismiss the challenges of life in Alaska,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner said in a Jan. 9 editorial.
Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, U.S. Coast Guard commandant, said the road will reduce the danger to Coast Guard crews, which have served as a last resort in emergencies.
“This road will provide residents of King Cove safe and reliable access to an airstrip and to commercial medevac services,” Adm. Zukunft said in a statement. “It will significantly reduce the risk our U.S. Coast Guard aircrews are exposed to while operating in one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s most unforgiving environments — Alaska.”
Ms. Murkowski said, “Common sense and compassion have finally prevailed.
“For decades, the people of King Cove have asked for what virtually every other American already takes for granted — a reliable way to protect their health and safety and improve their quality of life,” Ms. Murkowski said in a statement. “Previous administrations have focused on just about everything except the most obvious solution, which has always been a short, gravel connector road.”
Among those who attended the signing ceremony were Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who said it was “so exciting for me to be the governor at this moment when the right thing is done.”
“This is more than a 12-mile road,” said Mr. Walker. “This is a sign of a changing opportunity for our state to see that people do matter.”