Alaska’s Land Exchange Bill Gets Hearing in U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Today

April 15, 2008

 King Cove, AK – April 15, 2008 – Legislation proposing a massive land exchange between the State of Alaska, the King Cove Corporation and the federal government in return for a small, narrow road corridor, is scheduled for a hearing today in the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) Alaska, who co-sponsored the bill, will provide introductory statements. The president of the King Cove Corporation and member of the Agdaagux Tribal Council, Della Trumble, an Aleut (Alaska Native) born and raised in King Cove, will testify at the hearing.

“We are blocked from the construction of a road from our village to the Cold Bay airport, the third largest airport in the State of Alaska,” said Trumble. “That means when medical emergencies occur during poor weather, King Cove residents have to risk their lives to try to help someone get out of King Cove to the Cold Bay airport so they won’t suffer and possibly die. We are blocked by a wilderness area, the Izembek Wilderness, which Congress and this Committee created. That is why we have come to this committee today to ask that S. 1680 be passed.”

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 the 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 refuge dating back to World War II during the Aleutians Campaign.

“We believe this is unprecedented in the history of federal-tribal relations,” said Trumble. “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. 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 considering how residents would be affected or even consulting the Aleut people who have lived here for thousands of years.
“No one from the federal government ever let us tell our story and why the wilderness would cut us off from the outside world with no hope of protecting our life, health, safety and quality of life. That is why we continue to fight for a just and fair solution to this problem,” said Trumble.

“The passage of S. 1680 will provide that solution.”
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.

“We acknowledge and appreciate that Congress tried to solve our transportation problem about ten years ago with the King Cove Health and Safety Act, requiring us to have a road and marine link (the hovercraft). Unfortunately, the Act has failed to solve our problem,” Trumble said. 

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. 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.

“This is a real deficit that we’re talking about, without any accounting for depreciation or other “paper” losses,” Trumble added. “We are a thinly populated area. The Aleutians East Borough has about 2,700 residents. About 800 people live in the City of King Cove. It seems to us that permanent shutdown of the hovercraft is looming and is inevitable.”

Trumble says when that happens, King Cove will go right back to the dark ages.

“Then it is anguish, and for some families in King Cove, it has brought tragedy,” she added.

Since 1979, before Congress initially considered this issue, 11 people died flying between King Cove and Cold Bay in questionable weather. Gale force winds and fog often dominate the community’s weather, making travel by air or boat prohibitive. Even today, pregnant women must leave town before their due date for fear of unpredictable weather, premature labor and complications.

“I speak to you today as an Aleut, an Agdaagux tribal member, a mother, an Alaskan and a citizen of the United States,” said Trumble. “I am deeply connected to the land that you know as the Izembek Refuge through my ancestors, who have lived and subsisted on this wilderness for 4,000 years. My ancestors and all the ancestors of my people as well as future generations speak through me today in asking for your support of S. 1680. “

Background Information:

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. 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 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 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).

Legislation proposing the unprecedented land exchange (H.R. 2801) between the State of Alaska, the King Cove Corporation and the federal government received a hearing before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee last October. 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 the hearing last fall. 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 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.”