ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Monday rejected a proposed land swap with the state of Alaska to build a road through a remote Alaska national wildlife refuge that shelters millions of migratory waterfowl.
The contentious decision on whether to build a one-lane gravel road to provide those in a remote village with medical evacuation access to an all-weather airport came after four years of analysis, including a visit late last summer by Jewell to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Jewell made the trek to the refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula shortly after she replaced Ken Salazar.
Jewell's decision affirms a rejection of the proposal last February by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Salazar.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, threatened to hold up Jewell's nomination if the rejection wasn't reconsidered. Environmental groups submitted thousands of comments opposing the road.
The community of King Cove, backed by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state's congressional delegation, pressured Jewell to approve a land exchange that would allow construction of the road through Izembek, a strip of land between lagoons including the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon.
Jewell said even though the proposed swap would bring more acres of land into the refuge system, the department's analysis indicated it could not compensate for the unique values of existing refuge lands or the anticipated effects a road would have on the refuge.
The lagoon is home to the world's largest known bed of eelgrass and provides fodder to Pacific brant, endangered Steller's eiders and other migratory waterfowl as they fatten up to head south for the winter.
"Are birds really more important than people? It seems so hard to believe that the federal government finds it impossible to accommodate both wildlife and human beings," Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack said in a statement.
The three members of Alaska's congressional delegation berated Jewell's decision. U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in a statement: "This shameful and cowardly decision by Secretary Jewell, just two days before Christmas, to place eelgrass and waterfowl above human life is exactly what I would have expected from the Grinch, but not from an administration that preaches access to quality healthcare for all."
The governor also offered criticism, saying the decision was "unconscionable. This is another irrational decision by the federal government that denies Alaskans access — in this case access to emergency treatment."
But environmental groups praised the decision.
"A road would have severely damaged Izembek refuge's internationally recognized wetlands and irreplaceable wilderness that the American people agreed to permanently protect long ago," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
Officials in King Cove, with a population of 963, said a road would provide emergency medical patients access to an all-weather airport at Cold Bay, 22 miles away. They need to travel to Cold Bay when aircraft cannot reach their own airport, where strong winds and foul weather make flying dangerous.
"We are very insulted that our health, safety and quality of life simply do not matter to (Jewell)," Della Trumble, a spokeswoman for the Agdaagux Tribal Council and the King Cove Native. Corp., said in a statement. "Clearly, the secretary's trust responsibility to the Native people is very subjective and, is in fact, meaningless."
Jewell, in a statement, said her department would continue to assist in identifying and evaluating options to improve access, and noted the decision doesn't prevent the state, the Aleutians East Borough or the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay from making transportation improvements outside the refuge, including to the dock at Cold Bay.
Congress in 1997 addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took it out of service after deciding it was too expensive and unreliable to operate.
Jewell said while it was in service in 2007-10, the hovercraft completed every requested medical evacuation.
Borough and King Cove officials then began lobbying for their first choice, a road, and with the state proposed a land trade.
The land exchange proposes that the federal government give up 206 acres from the refuge and 1,600 acres from a refuge south of Kodiak for 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land belonging to King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation.
King Cove Mayor Henry Mack called Jewell's decision "devastating," but vowed to continue to fight for the road. "We simply have to find a way to turn this around," he said in a statement.