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Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, first I would like to follow my colleague from Minnesota in voicing my support for passage of the Violence Against Women Act. As she noted, I have been a cosponsor of this very important legislation not only this Congress but last. I have urged on multiple occasions that we move forward with reauthorization of this very significant legislation, have urged the House to do the same last year. They failed to do that.
You do not give up when the cause is right. This is far too important to too many around the country. My colleague has cited some of the statistics and the issues and the initiatives she worked on when she was back home in her home State of Minnesota. It is something I think we all share--a concern for the levels of domestic violence within our respective States. In a State such as Alaska where we have so much to be proud of, unfortunately our statistics as they relate to domestic violence are appalling. Appalling.
So anything that we can do, whether it is here in Washington, DC, at the local level, the State level, we must do. We need to act here. So I join not only my colleague from Minnesota but so many who have led the charge here to do right as we work to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. I will have an opportunity to speak more on the VAWA reauthorization later.
DECISION BY THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
I wanted to take some time this morning to come to the floor to speak about an issue that has absolutely inflamed me this week. This week I learned that the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior has made a decision to deny the construction of a single-lane gravel emergency access road through a very, very tiny portion of a national wildlife refuge located on the Alaska Peninsula in southwest Alaska.
You might think, well, why is this such a big deal? You have heard me here on the floor or others here in this body have certainly heard me many times advocate on behalf of Alaska and the development of our resources to benefit the people of Alaska, to benefit the country as a whole. This is not a development project I am talking about here today. What I am addressing today is the health and the safety--the safety of the residents of a small Aleut community located in the Aleutian Islands. These are 748 people who really do not have the audiences so many constituents in Alaska or in other parts of the country enjoy.
They are kind of out of sight, out of mind, if you will. They are not out of sight, out of mind, out of my heart.
One of the most important responsibilities we have as U.S. Senators, as Members of Congress, is to protect the safety of those people we represent.
I wish to tell the story of King Cove, AK, and what is going on. You have seen the picture of the map of Alaska, the big beautiful State. I don't have it superimposed over the rest of the lower 48, because my point today is not to talk about how big we are in comparison to the rest of the Nation as a whole but to put in context what we are talking about here when we talk about the community of King Cove, AK.
You have the Aleutian peninsula here that stretches out approximately 1,000 miles. You might not appreciate the length and scope we are talking about here, but the Aleutian chain is just exactly that.
King Cove is right on the end of this peninsula area in this diagram. It is kind of out there. When I say ``kind of out there,'' there is nothing else around there. There are no roads that connect you to get anywhere when you want to go to ``town.'' Town is Anchorage, AK, probably about 600 miles away, maybe even a little bit longer. It is most likely a $1,000 airplane ticket to get there. That puts it in context here. This is King Cove, AK.
To put it in a little better context as to what we are speaking about, this is the community of King Cove right on the end of this lagoon, this bay. All the way around the other side of the bay is an area called Cold Bay. Cold Bay was designated during World War II as an air base this country relied on. During the war, they constructed a 10,000-foot runway. It is the second longest runway in the State of Alaska right now, and it is in pretty good shape. It is used as a divert runway. NASA uses it as one of its divert places. It is a pretty good solid airport.
Keep in mind, Cold Bay has about 100, maybe 110 people on a good day who live there. Around here, King Cove is an Aleut community. It has been around for maybe 1,000 years, maybe a couple of thousand years. It has been around a long time. The Aleut people have lived in this part of the country for thousands of years. This community now is host to about 748 people, give or take. During the fishing season you might get it up as high as possibly 1,000 people. It is not a booming metropolis by any stretch of the imagination.
King Cove, as you can see, is kind of isolated. There is water all around it. That is fair, that is good. This is a situation where this community is ringed by mountains.
I have a picture here of King Cove. When you look at the location of the water, you see where the mountains are. These are pretty fjord-like. These are not timid and tame mountains. These are the types of mountains that get your attention when you are flying in.
The air strip here for King Cove sits right back up in this area. You need to come through these high mountains on all sides. When the cloud layer is low, as it usually is in this area, there are some issues as to whether you have a safe fly-out range.
There are clouds, not only cross currents that hit as you are coming into the airport, but you also have the downdraft coming off these very strong, very prominent mountains. This type of downdraft causes turbulence that particularly impacts helicopters which might be coming into this community for a rescue.
Again, as you look at the options of getting in and out of King Cove, your airport sits about here. You are rimmed with mountains. You may either fly in up this way or you may fly in and out that way. Either way you cut it, you are moving through very high mountainous terrain with winds on all sides coming from above, clouds coming from below. It is as tricky and as difficult a navigational issue as about anywhere in the State.
Going back to where King Cove sits in the ocean here, weather comes in off the Bering Sea up here and there is weather that comes up from the Gulf of Alaska here. It all kind of comes together right around the Aleutians. The Aleutians are known to be one of the areas, at least in this country, of--excuse the expression, but we call it snotty weather. It is foul weather too many times of the year, not just in the winter.
We saw last month the incident with Shell's vessel trying to move from Unalaska across the Gulf of Alaska during January and encountering seas of up to 40 feet. This is the weather we deal with in Alaska. There are difficult seas, and there are difficult flying situations. Yet there are people who call King Cove home and have for thousands of years.
You might ask why I am spending so much time talking about the weather. It sets the stage for this action the Department of Interior has taken and why I feel this decision is so wrongheaded, so shortsighted, and so wrong to the people who call this area home.
Talking again about the weather and what it means, when you are in a small community that doesn't have a hospital--you don't have a hospital if there are 748 people. We have an IHS clinic, an Indian Health Service clinic. To provide for health needs is a community health aid, and we might have a PA every now and again, but not always reliably. We actually did have a doctor out in King Cove some years ago. He was there in 2006, and he left after 6 months. We don't have the medical assistance we need. When somebody suffers a heart attack, when a woman has a complication with a pregnancy, it is not as if you can stay there in King Cove and seek medical help.
What happens? They have to get out. Well, how do they get out? They can get out by boat. They can move around by boat from King Cove over to Cold Bay, where we have the second largest runway in the State of Alaska. It seems like a pretty simple situation. The problem is that a boat is about as dangerous oftentimes as flying. What happens is if you have weather this stinky, it raises the waves, making getting a fishing vessel across with a sick person, trying to get them to the dock on Cold Bay side and out of that vessel, a harrowing event.
This is a picture we took from a video which had been taken by the residents of King Cove. It might be difficult to see this, but what you are looking at here is a steel ladder, a ladder going up the side of the dock. It is about a 20-foot area there. Way down at the bottom here you see the base of a fishing vessel. What they are trying to do is to haul a sick, elderly gentleman up this metal ladder in the rain, sleet, and snow that is coming. You have a boat that is pitching and heaving here, with somebody up at the top of the dock ready to pick up this individual underneath their arms and haul them up onto the dock. This is not a condition you want if you are feeling at all poorly. The fishing vessel isn't helping, so maybe we could do something else. Congress back in 2005 said maybe we could put a hovercraft there so it can fly the waters between this point here and Cold Bay over here, because there is a road that can take you right along here and take you across to the water.
The problem was not only the seas wouldn't accommodate, but also the operational costs were through the roof. It made no sense, and the people in King Cove and Cold Bay had acknowledged it was not going to make any sense. They tried it, they were game, but it hasn't worked.
What happened was action needed to be taken because we were seeing too many people whose lives were at risk. We were seeing too many people who were killed trying to get out in an effort to seek the medical help they needed.
At some point in time you say this doesn't work. When you have a way out, and it could be a simple road, why wouldn't we do that to address the life safety of the people who live here?
Back in 1979 and 1980, there were a number of airplane crashes that happened as they were trying to take off and land in King Cove. In 1981 we had a medevac plane go down. We lost a nurse, her helper, the patient, and the medevac's pilot--all killed. They were trying to airlift an individual who had suffered a heart attack. Everybody was killed.
In 2010, there was an airplane crash that occurred well on landing into King Cove. Della Trumble, who has long been an advocate for a solution to help the people of King Cove, was watching that plane land because her daughter was coming home. To be sitting there at the air strip, watching the plane come in to deliver your daughter, knowing the weather is foul, knowing the conditions are sketchy, and then seeing that airplane crash in front of your eyes--fortunately for Della and her daughter, she walked away. Think about that trauma.
In February of 2011, the Coast Guard was forced to dispatch a helicopter out of Kodiak, moving a helicopter from Kodiak over to King Cove. They were trying to transfer a 73-year-old woman who was suffering from chest pains. A few days later the Coast Guard tried and failed to reach King Cove with a helicopter to airlift an 80-year-old woman who was also suffering chest pains. Fortunately, she survived. Two days later, there was another medical airlift that was delayed 6 hours from leaving.
I just received the statistics from the Coast Guard for last year. How many rescue missions did the Coast Guard take on to go into King Cove to help those who needed help--not because the medevacs didn't want to go help or because it was going to be too costly--because the medevacs refused to go in because they will not take those risks.
What do we do? We call on our fabulous Coast Guard to come in and do the job. It was five times last year. It is scary work. The Coast Guard does it, and fortunately nobody was killed last year. How many people need to be killed when you have an option for a road to get you to the second longest runway in the State of Alaska?
Let me share with others what it is we actually did to address this problem. We said this is not acceptable. Five years ago this Congress approved a land exchange. In that exchange the Aleut people and the State of Alaska agreed to give up 56,400 acres of prized waterfowl habitat. They said, okay, we are going to give up 56,000 acres here to add to the Alaska peninsula and Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. We are going to trade this and, in return, the government will give back about 1,800 acres.
Do the quick math on this. This is a 300-to-1 exchange the people agreed to, and it is even less when we isolate it. We are talking about 206 acres that are at issue--206 acres to allow for construction of a one-lane gravel road that will have no commercial use. This is to be used for emergency access. If someone needs to get out of King Cove because they have some kind of a condition, all they would need to do is drive 20 miles--20 miles. Think about that. We drive 20 miles to get from here to wherever. We drive all the time and we don't think about it. We are talking about 20 miles to save people's lives.
But it is even better than that. Because when we are talking about what we are putting through a refuge, it is about a 10-mile road. I hate to even describe it as a road. It is a one-lane gravel area through this lagoon we are talking about and not for commercial use. We have agreed to this. In exchange for this 10-mile road, we said: We are going to give the Federal Government 56,400 acres to add to a wilderness area. What a deal--what a deal.
I hope you can see this, Mr. President, because it is important to understand what we are talking about. This area in the black is what would be subject to the exchange. This is what is going into the wilderness area. All this, plus other acreage that is not shown on this map, in exchange for these red corridors here--about 206 acres.
So back in 2009 we figured in the Senate and over in the House it was important to address the safety needs of the people of King Cove, and if we could do that by allowing for 10 miles, 11 miles of new road through the Izembek Refuge, we could solve a lot of problems. Again, I reiterate, this road is specifically not allowed to be used for economic development. In the omnibus bill we passed the language is specific: ``Primarily for health and safety purposes and only for noncommercial purposes.''
There were some who were so concerned we were going to see a volume of traffic going back and forth between this community of 748 people and the 110 people over here and that somehow there was going to be this wild traffic going back and forth that was going to disturb the migratory waterfowl, the birds that come through here, the animals in this refuge area. I think it is important to recognize this is not an area that has never been tracked by man; that has never seen a presence. Again, I will remind my colleagues, this was an Air Force base in World War II. This is the second largest runway in the State. This is an area that has seen traffic through vehicles, ATVs, over the years because of the war.
In this chart, we can see the red tracks here. These are all the areas where all-terrain vehicle use is currently in play, and this has been in play since 2005 to 2008. Then the areas that are kind of red dotted are the predicted ATV vehicle travel corridor. We can see this is all within the Izembek Refuge area, the wilderness area. So it is not as if this is without any kind of access that is in place.
If we look at this next picture, this is an example of what we are talking about with this proposed road. It is out in the middle of some pretty amazing, sweeping landscape, as we can see. But the road is pretty much a one-lane gravel road. There is not going to be any stuff such as street lights. There are not going to be any dividers, meridians, sidewalks. There will not be any overpasses. This is pretty much what we are talking about here.
This next chart shows the existing trails that are currently within the refuge area. Again, it is pretty much a small, narrow, one-track road. It is not like we are going to be able to pass one another moving through the area.
The last picture I wish to show is a view of what the area looks like. It is amazingly flat. It is surrounded by a lagoon area. It is beautiful, absolutely. But these are roads that are currently in existence in the area now. So what we are talking about doing is adding--adding--about a 10-mile strip that would allow us to connect the roads that exist in Cold Bay to connect to a community that needs to have an emergency way out that is safe. They need to be able to connect to those who are on the other side of this lagoon, and the way to do it is this simple road.
I have mentioned the concern about the waterfowl, and this is why the Secretary of the Interior called me and he said: I listened to the biologists, and the biologists tell me the best way to respect this refuge is to not allow any road, to not allow any road so we can respect the refuge. He listened to the biologists, but the Secretary of the Interior did not listen to the people of Alaska. He did not listen to the people of King Cove. He did not even accept a meeting with them the numerous times they have asked to meet with him. They have flown across country to make their case. But he listened to the biologists because he wants to respect the refuge, and, instead, the lives of these people are not being respected.
If this is the attitude of this Department of Interior--that we are going to respect the animals and we are going to respect the birds, but we are not going to respect the people who live there--then this is the wrong way to be going. This is the wrong way to be going, and I will not stand for it.
I want to make sure we have refuge areas. I want to make sure we have wilderness areas. In this exchange we adopted 5 years ago, we allowed for that. We are putting in place wilderness area--the first new wilderness area designated by Congress in a generation, with 45,456 acres of prime waterfowl habitat added to wilderness in Alaska. But you know what, that is gone. Those lands will not remain in wilderness designation unless this road is permitted because the exchange is then going to be nullified if that road is not going to be built.
We have offered a pretty sweet deal--a 300-to-1 exchange--in exchange for the safety of the people who live there. Anyone who thinks we can't build a one-lane gravel road that will allow for a coexistence between the waterfowl that migrate through there and the people who live there, they have another thing to be thinking about. We will not have a practical impact on the waterfowl in the refuge. While the land exchange involves 206 acres, far less is actually going to be impacted by the construction. It is far less than 1 percent of the refuge. Again, the Federal Government is getting 300 times more land.
It is just inconceivable to me we would not be able to have a resolution that works for both sides. For the Secretary to move forward with a designation that says no road--no road--it is just stunning to me. Some might say it is because it is going to cost us money. There is no
cost to the Federal Government. The State of Alaska is going to be building this.
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 and don't necessarily come during the good weather--although the people of King Cove would tell us they are not entirely sure when the good weather is--but come and see them. Come and see what we are talking about. I have been there. To Deputy Secretary Hayes' credit, he, too, has been there, and I appreciate that. I appreciate that others have tried and perhaps have not met with success because the weather didn't allow them in because we weren't about to take a risk with them. But at a minimum, the Secretary of the Interior needs to be there. He needs to meet with people--real people, such as Carl Smith, a King Cove elder, an Aleut warrior. He was recognized as one of the amazing veterans. He is an Eskimo Scout with the Territorial Guard. Look these people in the eye and tell them their lives are not worth as much as the lives of the birds, the black brants, that inhabit the area.
It is not too late. While this decision of the Department of the Interior has been made, the Secretary--or if Secretary Salazar is no longer there, his designee--has a legal obligation under this 2009 act to base a decision on the road on what is deemed the ``public interest.'' Right now it seems to me the Department of the Interior has deemed the public is made up solely of birds and sea otters. My public--my public--is the real human beings who live in King Cove.
So we need to make sure a decision is not based on an incomplete and misleading EIS that concludes, with lives at stake, no action is somehow acceptable. I repeat: No action is absolutely not acceptable.
I am going to end my comments by letting you know what has happened in some other refuges. It was just a few years ago, we will all remember, when we were transfixed by what was called ``the miracle on the Hudson.'' There was a commercial jetliner that hit a flock of Canadian geese, lost power, and landed in the Hudson River. Through the amazing skills of that pilot, nobody was harmed. But what was the result of that?
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Ms. MURKOWSKI. What actually happened a couple years after that incident was that USDA's Wildlife Service agents went into the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, rounded up and killed 751 Canadian geese. The plan was to kill 1,0000, but they couldn't catch them fast enough.
Essentially, we see it is OK to kill birds in New York refuges, but we can't inconvenience the birds in Alaska. Maybe geese are less exotic than black brants or maybe it is because Members of this body and their families and friends fly through La Guardia and they worry about that. Well, I worry about the lives of Alaskans. I worry about the people of King Cove, and I am not going to rest on this. The decision that came out of the Department of the Interior was a travesty. It will not be allowed to stand, and I will do everything I can to ensure it does not.
I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the editorial from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that also opposes the decision of the Department of the Interior, as well as the press accounts I have referred to of the New York geese story.
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