U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today sent letters to President Obama and Vice President Biden urging them to reverse a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision opposing a land exchange that would provide emergency road access for the people of King Cove, Alaska.
"I could not feel more strongly that the Fish and Wildlife Service's recent decision was wrong, and that if allowed to stand it would have grave consequences for the people of King Cove," Murkowski wrote in the letters. "As such, I am prepared to consider all actions available to me as a U.S. Senator to convince this administration that denying the people of King Cove reliable access to medical care would be a travesty."
Murkowski also sent letters to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Sally Jewell, the president's nominee to replace Secretary Salazar.
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 Cold Bay for emergency medical evacuation purposes.
"That was more than a fair exchange," Murkowski wrote. "The federal government received nearly 300 times more waterfowl habitat that the road will impact -- the first new wilderness area designation approved by Congress in Alaska in a generation."
A dozen deaths have been attributed to the lack of road access to the Cold Bay airport over the past 30 years. The worst accident occurred in 1981 when a plane crashed during an attempted medical evacuation, killing all four people onboard.
"At this time of year, when the weather is often too extreme to permit travel by air, the only alternative is a death-defying, 2.5 hour boat trip through 20-foot seas across Cold Bay, followed by a 20-foot climb up a dock ladder -- a trip that is simply impossible for many frail patients or pregnant women" Murkowski wrote.
The Fish and Wildlife Service last week issued a final environmental impact statement opposing the land exchange and emergency access road. Interior Secretary Salazar has the authority to override the Fish and Wildlife Service's recommendation and determine that the land exchange and road are in the public interest.
"I simply will not accept a decision by the department that a determination of the "public interest' can be based solely on a study that only concerned itself with the peace and tranquility of birds and not the lives of the Native Alaskans whose ancestors have lived in King Cove for millennia," Murkowski wrote. "I hope you will remember that when human lives are at stake, "no action' is not acceptable."
The letters and a fact sheet about the land exchange are available on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources website.