Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: High time for King Cove road: Congress should act to clear path for lifesaving route

Common sense. You’d think it always would prevail. It doesn’t, of course, and government routinely offers plenty of examples to prove it.

The continual battle to obtain a much, much needed — and potentially life-saving — road out near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula is one such example of how some government officials on the far side of the nation can’t understand Alaska and don’t recognize a common sense solution to a problem.

The issue of the King Cove road might not seem to be one of concern here in Interior Alaska. The small town in the Aleutians East Borough is 850 miles southwest of Fairbanks, after all.

But it is an issue that Interior Alaska residents, and all Alaskans really, should identify with — bureaucrats and department leaders not understanding life in Alaska.

Actually, the King Cove road wouldn’t be much of a road at all. It would be a narrow, 11-mile noncommercial gravel road linking King Cove to the all-weather airstrip at Cold Bay. That all-weather aspect of that airstrip is what it’s all about. That’s because the airstrip at King Cove is unreachable because of bad weather for about 100 days annually, and that means chartered private medical flights can’t get it in.

The result? Numerous instances over the years in which the U.S. Coast Guard is summoned to evacuate a person in need of urgent medical care that is not available in King Cove or Cold Bay. The lack of ground access to the airstrip at Cold Bay unnecessarily puts the Coast Guard crews in danger.

How dangerous is the air access to King Cove? Several aircraft have crashed en route to King Cove during the past several decades, sometimes killing the occupants, on the trip along a narrow valley known for high winds. People have died waiting for flights to Anchorage for medical care.

The solution was simple and fair: a land trade to gain a 206-acre right of way through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect King Cove to Cold Bay. The state of Alaska and the local Alaska Native corporation would give 56,000 acres in exchange for the right of way acreage. Also, the new road would not be paid for by federal taxpayers, the same taxpayers who pay the estimated $200,000 cost of each trip to King Cove by the Coast Guard from its station in Kodiak.

Congress authorized the trade, but former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who had authority over the matter, vetoed the trade two days before Christmas 2013. She determined the land exchange was not in the public interest.

The Aleutians East Borough, the city of King Cove, the state of Alaska and local tribal and Native corporations sued — and lost.

Prospects are brighter now. Secretary Jewell is out of office. Her likely replacement, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, almost certainly will be receptive to approving a land exchange. A Senate committee easily approved his nomination earlier this week, setting up a final confirmation vote in the full Senate.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan last month introduced legislation to authorize the land exchange again, which would involve the swap of the 206 acres of refuge land for 43,093 acres of nearby state land and some Native corporation land.

Despite what you hear from the elected officials, Congress has some culpability in this issue.

Lawmakers approved a lands bill in 2009 that authorized the land exchange and stated that the road “shall be used primarily for health and safety purposes.” But the interior secretary also was required to make sure the land exchange complied with the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. The act doesn’t allow for consideration of health and safety.

The judge wrote that the NEPA requirement “probably doomed the project.”

“Perhaps Congress will now think better of its decision to encumber the King Cove Road project with a NEPA requirement,” he wrote.

Every day that goes by without this road raises the possibility that someone will die unnecessarily or that Coast Guard personnel will be put at risk.

A resolution of support moving through the Legislature spells out that risk in stark fashion. Since Secretary Jewell’s denial of the land trade, according to the resolution, “55 additional emergency medical evacuations, 17 of which had to be performed by the United States Coast Guard, have occurred between King Cove and Cold Bay.”

It’s past time to get this done. It’s been past time for the 30 years that King Cove residents have been asking for this road.

Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner