Alaska’s Izembek Wilderness Enhancement Act Goes to Mark Up in U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Today
April 23, 2008
Washington, D.C. – April 23, 2008 – The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee will decide today whether to send an unprecedented Alaska land exchange bill to the full house for a vote. The legislation (H.R. 2801) proposes a land swap between the State of Alaska, the King Cove (Native) Corporation and the federal government in exchange for a small road corridor through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. It’s scheduled for mark up in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee today at 11 a.m. (Room 1324 – Longworth Building, Washington, D.C.). Just last week, the bill (S. 1680) received a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“We’re excited about the momentum that we’re seeing in both the House and the Senate,” said Stanley Mack, Aleutians East Borough Mayor. “We can’t make any predictions at this time, but we’re definitely feeling optimistic.”
Ranking committee member Rep. Don Young, (R) Alaska, sponsored the bill and plans to make introductory remarks at the House mark up.
“We couldn’t have gotten this far if it weren’t for Congressman Young,” said Mack. “His seniority, experience and good relationship with Committee members are the reasons why we are here today.”
The Izembek Enhancement Act (S. 1680) proposes increasing the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 61,000 acres. Forty-five thousand acres would become new wilderness. In exchange, the State of Alaska would get a 206-acre easement for a 7-mile single-lane gravel road to connect the isolated community of King Cove to Alaska’s third largest runway, located 25 miles away in the City of Cold Bay. The road would generally follow routes of existing military roads within the Izembek Wildlife Refuge dating back to World War II during the Aleutians Campaign.
“We need a road from our village to the Cold Bay airport.,” said Della Trumble, president of the King Cove Corporation. “Otherwise, residents have to risk their lives to help patients get out of King Cove during poor weather to the Cold Bay airport where they are medivaced to hospitals in Anchorage.”
Trumble said this legislation offers a staggering amount of land with high habitat value to the federal government. She says this is a great deal for the nation. Furthermore, securing safe, reliable transportation access with a small road corridor is critically important for the Aleut residents of King Cove.
“We know of no instance in which a tribe traded back so much of its reservation to get access to an airport or similar need for their tribe’s health, safety and quality of life which most Americans take for granted,” she added. “This is indeed a heavy price to pay to enhance the lives of our people. But we are willing to do this because it is our sacred duty to our ancestors and future generations.”
The land surrounding King Cove was designated as wilderness more than 25 years ago without consulting the Aleut people who have lived here for thousands of years or considering how they would be impacted by this decision.
“If we had been notified, we would have made sure we had a seat at the table so we could secure access through the wilderness,” said Trumble. “But that didn’t happen. That’s why we’re seeking justice today — for our people and for future generations.”
Future generations will definitely be closely watching how this legislation progresses. Several high school students from King Cove and Sand Point plan to attend the bill’s mark up today in the House Natural Resources Committee. They are here as part of the Aleutians East Borough School District’s annual “Close Up” program. The program allows juniors in high school to explore the nation’s capitol and learn about the legislative process.
“This bill is so important,” said Marissa Mack, a high school junior from King Cove attending the “Close Up” program. “Right now, there is no guaranteed way to get out of King Cove when people need it the most, especially during medical emergencies. We need something that’s safe and reliable.”
Eleven-year old King Cove resident Rachael Yatchmeneff also traveled to Washington, D.C. to watch the hearing. In addition, she came here to take part in meetings with congressional staff members and several officials from the City of King Cove, the Aleutians East Borough and representatives of the Agdaagux Tribal Council. Yatchmeneff is the daughter of ShelleyYatchmeneff, the former president of the Agdaagux Tribal Council.
“I’m here to represent my generation in King Cove,” said Rachel Yatchmeneff, a member of the Agdaagux Tribal Council. “We have the most at stake, so we want to help our elders protect our future. It’s exciting and a privilege to ask Congress to pass our bill.”
“Rachael and these other kids are the reason we’re doing this,” said Trumble. “They are the next generation who will take up this cause. We will keep on fighting to get safe, dependable access until justice is done. We’re hopeful Congress will see the merits of this bill and help solve our community’s longstanding transportation access problem.”
Before the hovercraft was available, 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 Cold Bay, where an all-weather airport is located. Since 1979, eleven people have died while flying in this flight corridor during questionable weather.
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 hovercraft has been on operational hiatus (except for medical evacuations) since March 1, 2008. Between the beginning of the fiscal year (which began July 1, 2007) and the end of February 2008, the Borough incurred a hovercraft-related loss of $832,000 — a deficit the Borough cannot afford to bear. Mechanical problems, delays in getting replacement parts from the United Kingdom and poor weather have combined to keep the hovercraft out of service much more than previously anticipated.
The Aleut people of this community 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 the 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. Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack and King Cove Corporation President Della Trumble testified in favor of the bill at a House hearing last fall. Dale Hall, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also expressed 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 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 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.”