Murkowski to Interior: Respect the Lives of Alaskans First

Senator Lashes out Against Izembek Decision on Senate Floor, Takes Issue up With Vice President and Interior Secretary Nominee

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate demanding that the Secretary of the Interior put the health and safety of Alaskans above the inconvenience of migrating birds when deciding whether a land exchange, involving the Izembek National Refuge, that would grant the residents of King Cove limited road access to emergency medical care was in the public interest.

Click to watch video clip of Sen. Murkowski’s floor speech on the King Cove Road

“Five years ago this Congress approved a land exchange. The Aleut peoples of Alaska and the state of Alaska agreed to give up 56,400 acres of prized waterfowl habitat to add to the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuges in return for the government giving back about 1,800 acres – a 300-to-1 exchange,” Murkowski said. “Just 206 acres are really at issue. This land is required to permit construction of a single-lane gravel road that would allow ambulances to travel between the Native fishing village of King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay, Alaska so that medical emergencies can be medivaced to Anchorage for life-saving treatments.”

In 1979-1980, according to the Anchorage Daily News, there were a number of airplane crashes trying to land or takeoff at King Cove. In 1981, a nurse, her helper, her patient and a medivac’s pilot were killed trying to airlift an emergency medical patient suffering a heart attack out of the village.

“Over the past 30 years, more than a dozen people have died, and many others have been injured, from aviation accidents involving airplanes flying into or out of King Cove, many because of medical emergencies where pilots felt they had no choice but to risk the trip,” Murkowski said. “It was because this truly is a matter of life and death that this body approved the land exchange. Now the Interior Department has largely ignored the threats to Native residents’ lives in deciding that theoretical small impacts to a tiny sliver of a refuge override health and safety issues for real human beings.”

The Interior Secretary has a legal obligation under the 2009 act to base a decision on the road on what is in the ‘public interest.’ This authority allows him to approve the land exchange and road regardless of the recommendation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Click to watch Sen. Murkowski’s full floor speech on the King Cove Road

 “While the Department of the Interior seems to be believe that their ‘public’ is made up solely of birds and sea otters, my ‘public’ includes the real human beings who live in King Cove. This decision cannot be based solely on an incomplete and misleading EIS that concluded that, with lives at stake, no action was acceptable. ‘No action’ is not acceptable,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski also raised the issue of the emergency road today with Vice President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell.

“Too many people have died for there to be any legitimate excuse for further delay. And I challenge those officials within the Department of the Interior to come and visit King Cove. The Secretary of the Interior needs to … look these people in the eye and tell them that their lives are not worth as much as the lives of the birds, the black brants, that inhabit the area,” Murkowski said.