U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is slated to visit with residents of King Cove during a visit to Alaska in September.
During her confirmation meetings, she reportedly promised U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan she would meet with villagers to talk about a short, one-lane gravel road skirting the edge of the 330,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to reach Cold Bay’s all-weather airport for medical evacuations in inclimate weather.
Haaland’s department over the years, and under different administrations, generally opposed the road between the communities. When Interior, under President Donald Trump, approved a land swap that would allow the road to be built, U.S. District Judge John Sedwick rejected the deal. Trump’s administration appealed and Biden’s Department of Justice has filed a legal brief in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals defending the exchange.
The Aleut fishing village of about 950 has fought for decades to get such a road to the Cold Bay all-weather runway for medical evacuations in poor weather, but without success. The roadway would be routed along the edge of the 330,000-acre Izembek refuge. Environmental groups claim such a road would endanger migratory birds and eel grass they feed on – despite there already being more than 40 miles of roads in the refuge used by hunters.
The 11-mile stretch would complete a 30-mile road that would provide a reliable ground link to Cold Bay’s all-weather runway when the area’s notoriously fierce weather grounds small planes.
King Cove is the poster village for the disconnect between Alaska and those who value a duck more than a human life. It is emblematic of forgotten federal trust responsibilities for Native Alaskans. Environmental interests fear allowing such a road would set precedent and pave the way for bars and convenience stores in refuges across the nation. That somebody surely will die at King Cove someday trying to reach medical help without the road is of little consequence to them.
King Cove is a tiny pin hole in a very large map, a wind-blown fishing village in the Aleutians East Borough. Located on the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaska Peninsula, out near its end, it is about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage and hard against the Izembek refuge.
Residents have been trying to get a road built since before the refuge was designated mostly as wilderness by the Alaska National Interest Lands Act in 1980. Unsurprisingly, they say, nobody bothered to tell villagers there would be a wildlife refuge nearby, or that it would contain wilderness or affect construction of a road to Cold Bay.
Ferocious weather grounds or delays King Cove’s aircraft about half the time. Eleven people have died in unsuccessful medical evacuations and other plane trips in and out of King Cove over the past four decades. The worst accident was in 1981, when a medevac crash killed all four aboard. Trying to reach Cold Bay by boat in bad weather is dangerous, too. It is a harrowing two- to three-hour trip through life-threatening, tumultuous seas.
Coast Guard helicopters regularly are used to evacuate residents in horrid weather. Each medevac mission presents a very real danger to pilots, crew and residents. Watching videos of the missions will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Congress has done about everything it can do to appease environmentalists and avoid building a road. In 1997, it provided $37.5 million for a clinic and water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft later beached because of expense and reliability issues.
It turns out, a simple, gravel road is the only safe way to medically evacuate those who need to reach Anchorage, no matter the weather. Without the road, somebody, some day, again is going to die in King Cove trying to reach medical help.
It is simply a matter of time. Perhaps Haaland will see the importance of valuing human life over ducks and eel grass.
We can hope, but we will not hold our breath.