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
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • FRESHWATER SCIENTIST
    The Freshwater Scientist provides technical and scientific support and leadership as a subject matter resource (SMR) for conservation initiatives in surface and groundwater hydrology including...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...