Alaska Community Leaders Request Senate Committee Vote for Land Exchange Bill
July 14, 2008
King Cove, AK – July 14, 2008 – Native and community leaders from King Cove, Alaska are meeting with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. this week in hopes that the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will vote to report S. 1680 to the Senate floor this summer. The Izembek Enhancement Act proposes increasing the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 61,000 acres in exchange for a small, narrow road corridor leading from King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, Alaska. The legislation would provide the community with a long-term solution to its transportation access problem.
King Cove community members are hopeful Senator Jeff Bingaman (D – New Mexico), chairman of the committee, will allow the legislation to move forward based on health, safety and quality-of-life factors. The committee scheduled a hearing on the issue on April 15, 2008. In the weeks following the hearing, staff members from Bingaman’s and Senator Ron Wyden’s offices have been considering a number of management regulations to incorporate into the legislation to strike a balance between the needs of human life and possible environmental impacts to migrating birds in the Izembek Wildlife National Refuge.
King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss reaffirmed his position that “compromise bill requirements should be achievable given how important the issue is for the health, safety and the quality-of-life of the residents of King Cove”.
Last month, when King Cove community leaders met with Bingaman to discuss the merits of the bill, the senator acknowledged supporting the issue ten years ago. At that time, the King Cove Corporation agreed to exchange 650 acres of valuable habitat land for a road corridor through the wilderness. This time, the amount of acreage that would be exchanged is nearly 100 times larger than what was proposed in 1998. The King Cove (Native) Corporation is offering 18,000 acres of its prime habitat as part of the exchange. The State of Alaska is proposing to give the federal government 43,000 acres, for a total of 61,000 acres.
“As far as we know, no Native corporation or tribe has ever traded so much of its land simply to gain access to an airport for any reason,” said Della Trumble, King Cove (Native) Corporation President. “But reliable access is so important to our people that we’re willing to pay the price and give up our valuable land in order to save lives.”
Since August of 2007, the Aleutians East Borough has operated commercial hovercraft service between the City of King Cove and the City of Cold Bay. However, mechanical problems and poor weather have combined to keep the hovercraft out of service much more than was ever anticipated. Furthermore, the hovercraft is running at a net annual deficit of more than one million dollars.
“Unfortunately, the hovercraft is too expensive for the Borough to maintain, and the craft’s reliability, due to our severe weather conditions, does not operate on a predictable basis either,” said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss. “This land exchange legislation will provide the community with a road that’s safe and dependable while offering the federal government a massive amount of pristine land, most of which will go into wilderness status with passage of the bill.”
On April 23, 2008, members of the House of Natural Resources Committee overwhelmingly passed the bill (H.R. 2801) in a markup hearing and sent it to the full House unaltered. During the hearing, Rep. Neil Ambercrombie, (D – HI), who also has indigenous constituents in his district, told the committee he understands this is a unique situation and that the Aleut people of King Cove have made numerous sacrifices for this bill. Delegate Eni Faleomaveaga, (D – American Samoa) said he can’t think of any people who are more conscientious and sensitive to the environment than the people who have lived in King Cove and the Izembek area for more than 4,000 years. A few weeks later, Senator Daniel Akaka (D – HI) signed on as the co-sponsor of the Senate bill. The Hawaii legislator had supported building the road when the issue was brought before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee a decade ago. As he did then, Akaka recently expressed sympathy for the health and safety of the people of King Cove as well as for the rights of native peoples. This show of support demonstrates this legislation is not about partisan politics.
“It’s a win-win solution for everyone concerned,” Trumble added. “If it saves even one life, it’s worth it. And road access to Cold Bay has the potential to save many lives over the years.”
Before a hovercraft was available in King Cove, transporting emergency medical patients from the City of King Cove to the City of Cold Bay during thick fog or a storm was impossible. Flights from King Cove’s unpaved airstrip are delayed or canceled about 50% of the time. There are no roads connecting King Cove to the City of Cold Bay, where an all-weather airport is located. King Cove is often plagued by gale force winds and dense fog. Sometimes Cold Bay (the body of water between the City of King Cove and the City of Cold Bay) has 15 – 20 foot seas in the winter. Even with the hovercraft theoretically available, factors such as poor weather and mechanical malfunctions have prevented hovercraft service for days at a time.
The Aleut people have lived in this remote area of the Alaska Peninsula for more than 4,000 years. There are more than 14 miles of roads traversing the Izembek Wilderness and another 35 miles in the Izembek Refuge, dating back to World War II when thousands of GIs traveled throughout the area. In 1980, the federal government designated a major portion of the land that lies between King Cove and Cold Bay as wilderness. That action prohibited the construction of a road between the two communities.
In 1998, a land exchange bill was introduced in Congress, but environmentalists lobbied hard against it. As a compromise, Congress appropriated $37.5 million under the King Cove Health and Safety Act for improvements to the King Cove medical clinic and airport and to fund a marine transportation system link (the hovercraft) between the two cities. Even though the clinic that was built is state-of-the art, the small community is unable to attract doctors with the skill level needed to handle emergencies and life-threatening illnesses. A multi-million-dollar hovercraft was also purchased to ferry residents from King Cove to the Cold Bay airport. However, officials with the Aleutians East Borough say it’s now obvious that the hovercraft is not a long-term solution.
As part of legislation introduced in June 2007, members of the King Cove Corporation decided they would be willing to give up a large amount of their valuable land because this transportation access is so important to the community. The King Cove Corporation (created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) will relinquish more than 18,000 acres. The State of Alaska has brought nearly 43,000 acres to this land exchange. If all proceeds as proposed, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) would transfer a 1600-acre island near Kodiak, which the Coast Guard will soon surplus, plus approximately 206 acres, for a road corridor through a very small portion of the Izembek Refuge. Approximately 97 acres of the corridor would be in the wilderness section of the refuge. As part of the legislation, 45,493 acres of state and King Cove Corporation-donated land would be added to the wilderness. The state would pay for the cost of the road corridor construction through its annual STIP (Statewide Transportation Improvement Program).
Support for the legislation has come from the local, state and national level. Dale Hall, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also expressed his support for the legislation.
“This proposal would offer approximately 38 acres for every acre of wetlands and wildlife habitat, and 200 acres for every acre of wilderness exchanged,” Hall said during his testimony. “The Administration recognizes the legitimate needs of Alaska residents to have access to medical, dental and other health care,” he added.
Last year, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin sent letters of support for the bill to Alaska’s Congressional Delegation. In June of 2007, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens introduced companion legislation (H.R. 2801 and S.1680) authorizing the land exchange. Last fall, the Alaska Federation of Natives weighed in and passed a resolution in favor of the land exchange bill. The National Congress of American Indians has also passed a resolution in support of the bill.
“We need a safe, reliable transportation option,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “A road connection to Cold Bay would save lives. It’s the only workable, long-term solution.”