New Consideration of Izembek Exchange

By Libby Casey

The U-S Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at the environmental impacts of a planned land-exchange and road project in the Alaska Peninsula’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.    Congress passed legislation signed into law last year calling for the land exchange and allowing for a road to connect two communities.  But environmentalists are still fighting the plan. 

The controversial Izembek land swap and road were OK’d by Congress and the President, but they’re not a done deal.  First the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, and determine if the swap and the road are in the public’s best interest.

The ROAD upsets environmentalists.  It would connect the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.  Cold Bay has a World War II- era runway that makes it the fifth biggest air hub in the state.  King Cove is just 20 miles away, and wants the road to reach the airport and the medical care of the outside world.

Stanley Mack is mayor of the Aleutians East Borough, and has lived in King Cove his whole life.  He says federal decision-makers may not see many projects with such strong local backing.

I bet most don’t have nearly as much grass roots support as this land exchange.  I wonder how many other hearings in Washington, D-C have been the result of community request a single lane, gravel road, less than 20 miles long.

Mack traveled to Washington this week to speak at a public scoping meeting hosted by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  They were in Anchorage a week ago and will hold meetings in late April in five Aleutians East Borough communities.

At Thursday’s hearing, nine people testified against the swap, and five testified for it.

One of the supporters was Republican Congressman Don Young.

We’re talking about American lives.  We just had a terrible tragedy in Haiti, and everybody rose to help those people.  We responded.  And now I believe through this study you will respond to the people of King Cove.  When you have a pregnant mother that has the possibility of a miscarriage and they can’t get to Cold Bay because we didn’t build a road.

But it’s not like the residents of King Cove have no way of getting to the big airport.  They have a hovercraft – one bought with taxpayer dollars as a solution to their isolation.  Retired Fish and Wildlife employee Lenny Corin remembers when this issue first came up about 15 years ago, and all the effort behind the decision to go with the hovercraft rather than a road.  He says since the hovercraft went fully operational three years ago, it’s worked.  Corin thinks the road is unnecessary, and feels so strongly about it that he traveled to D-C from his home in Washington State.  He says the problem with the hovercraft is the cost, but that can be fixed.

The apparent issue today is not health and safety the financial viability of the hovercraft link, that was paid for with U-S taxpayer dollars.  And now instead of addressing that need we’re embarking on a 1.5 – 2 million dollar evaluation process, and then potentially a 20-25 million construction dollar project, when a less damaging and more cost effective solution would be to establish a fund to subsidize the operation of a hovercraft.

Besides, Corin believes the hovercraft is more reliable than a 30 mile road that will need to be plowed and maintained during harsh weather conditions.

Environmentalists like Lauren Hierl with the Alaska Wilderness League want to protect the lands and waters used by birds, bears, and sealions.

As proposed the road would drive right through the Izembek isthmus, which lies betwen some of the largest eel grass beds in the world.  They provide food for quarter million migratory birds.

Heirl says conservationists fear this could set a precedent for wilderness areas across the country.

The proposed road would be the first ever to bisect a congressionally designated wilderness despite the fact that by definition wilderness is meant to be a place where humans leave no mark.  If this road were built, it would open the door to similar destructive projects in other wilderness areas.

But Borough Mayor Stanley Mack says his people want the eel grass, the birds, the bear and caribou healthy because they’re part of their subsistence lifestyle and culture.

I expect the mitigation measures will protect the resources that are so valuable to the King Cove and Cold Bay residents.  Nobody knows better than the people living in the Aleutians East Borough what a jewel the Izembek Refuge is, and how important protection for the future generations of the Aleuts is.

Right now Fish and Wildlife is taking comments from anyone about what should be covered in the Environmental Impact Statement.  This scoping process will go on until May first, and then a draft E-I-S will come out next spring.


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