Federal officials have rejected a plan for a land exchange that would allow for a road to be built from the Aleutians fishing community of King Cove to Cold Bay, allowing access for improved medical emergency response.
The Interior Secretary and the US Fish and Wildlife Service on Feb. 5 released a final environmental impact statement on the proposed exchange of federal, state and private lands which would have allowed a road corridor through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and said the preferred alternative would be to protect “the pristine landscape that Congress designated as wilderness and that serves as vital habitat” for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, shorebirds and waterfowl.
King Cove, with a population of nearly 1,000 residents, is also the home of a thriving Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant, which is the cornerstone of the community’s economy, employing several hundred people to process pollock, Pacific cod, halibut, salmon and crab.
In inclement weather, which is common for many months of the year, small aircraft can’t take off or land at King Cove and people in need of emergency medical care must be taken by boat over choppy waters to the all weather airport at Cold Bay—a trip that can take up to three hours in stormy weather, if it’s feasible at all.
King Cove Mayor Henry Mack, himself a commercial fisherman, said just this past week an employee at the seafood plant had to be taken by fishing tender from King Cove to Cold Bay, a journey that took over two hours, because of a heart attack.
In winter months there is daily boat traffic between King Cove and Cold Bay just to get people, including seafood plant workers, back and forth between Anchorage and King Cove, he said.
The federal decision on the environmental impact statement aside, Mack said King Cove is not done yet. “We started this fight 35 years ago,” he said. “We’ve been at it a long time. At some point in our lives we will deal with some people with some common sense.
Alaska’s congressional delegation also spoke out again in favor of the road and said they would fight for it. “King Cove residents need access to a viable airport in case of emergency and Col Bay airport is just 25 miles away,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, also called the decision unacceptable.
Environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society, meanwhile applauded the federal agencies on their decision, saying the proposed land exchange and road would have “traded internationally significant wetlands for lower-quality habitat.”