Senator Lisa Murkowski today announced an agreement with the Department of the Interior to review the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's opposition to a life-saving road through a remote part of Southwest Alaska.
After direct talks with Murkowski, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to take a second look at a land exchange in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge with the community of King Cove and the state of Alaska that would allow a one-lane, gravel road to connect King Cove with an all-weather airport in neighboring Cold Bay.
"There is no greater good we could do than to provide the residents of King Cove a safe land route to the airport in Cold Bay so they can be evacuated in cases of medical emergencies," Murkowski said. "I'm pleased that Secretary Salazar has agreed to take a second look at this. I look forward to working with Interior to ensure the department fulfills its native trust responsibilities to the people of King Cove."
Under the agreement, the Interior Department will look at whether the environmental impact statement (EIS) by the Fish and Wildlife Service adequately considered the importance of protecting the human health and safety of the residents of King Cove. The review will also include an evaluation of Interior's native trust responsibilities, and government-to-government consultations with local Aleut groups, including the Aleut Native Corp., Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, Beikofski Tribal Council, King Cove Corp., City of King Cove and Aleutians East Borough.
Secretary Salazar also agreed with Murkowski's request to hold public meetings with Assistant Secretary Washburn and the Secretary of the Interior in King Cove.
The review process will be conducted by Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs and overseen by the Secretary of the Interior.
In a memo to Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, Secretary Salazar directed them not to issue a final decision on the road until the review was completed. New information uncovered in the review will be taken into account in any final decision on the road, and could result in Interior conducting a supplemental EIS.
"In my mind, this is an environmental justice issue. Conserving our natural spaces is important, but we have to balance that with the safety needs of local residents," Murkowski said. "King Cove has been clearly disadvantaged by a wildness designation that separates them from Cold Bay. The least we can do is to ensure they have the ability to reach an airport that can handle instrument approaches when weather makes travel by plane and boat all but impossible."
Murkowski said she looks forward to working with the Interior Secretary to ensure the safety and dignity of the people of King Cove is upheld.
"Sally Jewell will have the privilege of going to King Cove and I will be right there with her. We'll have to find a time when the weather is best suited for travel -- we may have to fly into Cold Bay and walk to King Cove," Murkowski said.
The land exchange, which was approved by Congress in 2009, would add 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula and allow the community of King Cove to build a single-lane, gravel road through 206 acres of the refuge to the all-weather airport in the neighboring community of Cold Bay for emergency medical evacuation purposes.
A number of deaths have been attributed to the lack of road access to Cold Bay during the past 30 years. The worst accident occurred in 1981 when a plane crashed during an attempted medical evacuation, killing all four people onboard.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month issued a final environmental impact statement that identified its preferred alternative as one that does not support allowing the land exchange and emergency access road to go forward.