By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Department of the Interior, after a four-year environmental analysis, on Monday rejected a deal proposed by the state of Alaska and an indigenous group to swap 61,000 acres for conservation in exchange for the right to build an emergency road through a wildlife refuge.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she sided with the conclusion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reject the proposed land exchange and prevent the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The state and the local Aleut people want to build a single-lane gravel road to provide emergency access for the remote town of King Cove to an all-weather airport.
"After careful consideration, I support the Service's conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it," Jewell said in a statement.
She added that the Interior Department will assist residents of King Cove in identifying and evaluating options for affordable transportation and health care.
Congress and President Obama approved the land swap in 2009 but the final decision on whether it was in the public interest was left to Jewell after an environmental impact statement.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has been a vocal advocate for building the road. It had initially been rejected by Jewell's predecessor, Ken Salazar, prompting Murkowski to threaten to hold up Jewell's confirmation.
After Jewell was confirmed, she traveled with Murkowski to the area in August to see the route of the proposed road and meet with King Cove residents.
On Monday, Murkowski vowed to consider "all possible options" to build the road, said her spokesman, Robert Dillon.
In addition to being the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, Murkowski is also the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, which oversees the Interior Department's budget.
The senator railed against Jewell, saying the decision endangers the Aleut people of King Cove for the sake of "the alleged peace of the birds in the refuge."
Murkowski said the decision highlighted the competing visions of the Interior Department and the citizens of Alaska. "The idea that Alaska has to be protected from Alaskans is highly offensive," she said.
"The lives of our people, our elders, children and grandchildren are at stake over this issue," said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. "Are birds really more important than people?
Watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste cited the environmental impact statement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which said the road would end up costing $22.7 million, and warned that the project could end up exceeding $80 million, or more than $2 million per mile.
(The spelling of "gravel" has been corrected in 3rd paragraph)
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler)