By Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich
The proposal to build a life-saving road to connect the Alaska Peninsula communities of King Cove and Cold Bay is most persuasive when you listen to the stories of those who live there.
Della Trumble watched the plane carrying her daughter crash when it tried to land at King Cove's treacherous airport in 2010. That's why she has spent her life fighting for a road to cross a small sliver of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay.
Or consider the story of Sarina Kenezuroff, born prematurely on a fishing boat galley table as friends and relatives tried desperately to get her mother to a medevac across the bay. She was so small at birth - just 3 pounds - the crew put her in a tinfoil-lined shoebox and used the boat's oven as a makeshift incubator to keep her alive.
And there's Etta Kuzakin, president of the Agdaagux Tribe. In April, she went into premature labor but was told her baby could not be safely delivered in King Cove. A Coast Guard helicopter crew braved gale-force winds to get her to a waiting Lifeline flight to Anchorage, where her daughter was born by caesarian section.
Not every story ends happily. At least 19 people have died in King Cove, either in plane crashes or because they couldn't get timely medical treatment. Others have been forced to endure prolonged pain and suffering.
In a community with no hospital or doctor, King Cove residents must fly 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures.
The best way to solve King Cove's transportation problem is federal permission for a single-lane gravel road across 11 miles of the refuge. Only 206 acres are required to connect with the refuge's 50 miles of existing roads and the Cold Bay airport, with the state's longest runway.
Why should the federal government solve this problem? For starters, the government created it. When the Izembek refuge was established 53 years ago, it cut off the traditional land route between King Cove and Cold Bay without consulting area residents.
Five years ago Congress sought to right that wrong by approving a land exchange green-lighting the road. The Aleut of King Cove and the state agreed to give up 56,400 acres of prized waterfowl and wildlife habitat to add to the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula refuges. In return, the federal government would give back about 1,800 acres - a 300-to-one exchange.
Despite this agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed the road would irreparably harm the refuge and rejected it. But that's not the last word. The final decision rests with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, scheduled to visit King Cove in late August. It's our hope that she will come away with a deeper understanding of why King Cove residents deserve access to the life-saving airport.
At our request, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn traveled to King Cove in June to see the need for the road first-hand. He got the true Alaska experience: his flight out of King Cove was grounded by bad weather, so he was forced to return to Cold Bay on a long and turbulent fishing boat ride.
Now it's up to Secretary Jewell, because federal law requires her to determine whether the road is in the public interest. She can side with those who believe King Cove residents should face the Hobson's choice of continuing to live with unacceptable risks to their health or leaving their homes in a thriving commercial fishing community with the area's only deepwater port.
She can side with those who claim the road harms habitat, even though King Cove residents have been good stewards of the area for generations.
Or Secretary Jewell can instead be an inclusive, creative problem solver who strikes a balance in the public interest: protecting human health and advancing human dignity as she adds valuable land to the refuge.
We hope Secretary Jewell will see that too many people have suffered and died to delay this life-saving road.