An ‘ill-conceived’ road through Alaskan wilderness

The Trump administration’s backdoor land swap could set a dangerous precedent.

 

Barry Whitehill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. Now retired, he was deputy director of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, among other positions, and is a board member for the Alaska chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.


At the far end of the Alaska Peninsula lies an expanse of public lands that provides vital habitat for bears, caribou and migrating waterfowl. It’s a sportsman’s paradise, but unfortunately, it’s also a battleground in the fight to protect designated wilderness against development.

There’s a lot at stake: Any hunter who has experienced the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which is on the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaskan Peninsula, will never forget it. Stunning, snow-covered mountains frame lagoons and surrounding wetlands rich with wildlife and images that penetrate one’s soul. The refuge offers waterfowl and brown bear hunting that are unsurpassed.

Twice, the federal government has studied construction of a road through the refuge and its wilderness area, and most recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did an exhaustive study of a proposed land exchange. And twice, the Department of the Interior decided that such a road would harm important fish and wildlife species, and that viable, non-road alternatives would serve the transportation needs of the community of King Cove, whose population is about 790. 

“The ill-conceived idea of an Izembek road keeps coming back to haunt us,” said John Gale, conservation director of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “This new back-door approach flies in the face of science and the will of the American people who own these lands. Studies by the Interior Department have determined the road should not be constructed, citing irreparable impacts to fish and wildlife and sensitive habitats of such high quality and importance that they were given refuge status. Compromising the integrity of any of our refuges is not only dubious; it subverts the very concept of a refuge.”

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is rich with sensitive wildlife that should remain protected.

Yet as recently as this May, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker listed the road as one of his transportation priorities. And according to a story published in The Washington Post on Oct. 15, the Trump administration has secretly backed a land swap between the federal government and King Cove Corporation, which would allow construction of the controversial road.

The town of King Cove says the road has long been needed so that ambulances could drive to the airport in nearby Cold Bay during emergencies. But passage through the wildlife refuge was initially conceived decades ago as a project to boost the town’s commerce. King Cove passed a resolution to that effect in the 1980s, and road proponents long have touted its potential economic benefits.

After Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited King Cove in 2011, she told the Aleutians East Borough that “the decades-old push to get the road built between King Cove and the Cold Bay Airport...is going to be a critical ingredient in that thriving economic future going out for the next 100 years.”

Walker recently agreed, telling Trump that the Izembek road would enable “access to health services and movement of goods and people between King Cove and Cold Bay.” Critics say that despite claims that a road would be used only in emergencies, it could also be used by all manner of vehicles, including trucks hauling fish caught by the region’s commercial fleet. 

If allowed by Congress, construction of a road through the heart of Izembek’s wilderness lands would set a precedent endangering refuges and wilderness areas everywhere. The King Cove Road Land Exchange Act (H.R. 218 and S.101), undermines numerous conservation laws, including the Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act, National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge belongs to all Americans and is a place like no other. Its saltwater lagoons contain one of the largest eelgrass beds in the world, providing food and habitat for fish and crabs that feed migratory birds from multiple continents. During spring and fall migrations, this beautiful, windswept landscape explodes with life as virtually the entire world population of Pacific black brant and emperor geese, along with a significant portion of the threatened Steller’s eider population, stop to rest and feed.

At a time when public lands across the nation are under attack, we owe it to ourselves, our kids and our grandkids to protect the integrity of our wild areas that help provide subsistence resources for local communities. With the science saying that no road should be built through the Izembek Refuge, it’s time for Alaska to agree.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.