Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Refuge Enhancement Act Passes Senate as Part of the Omnibus Public Lands Package

January 15, 2009

Washington, D.C. – Jan. 15, 2009 – Community leaders from King Cove, Alaska and the Aleutians East Borough are praising the Alaska Delegation after the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Refuge Enhancement Act passed in the U.S. Senate today as part of the landmark Omnibus Public Lands Package (S. 22). The Public Lands Bill passed 73 to 21. The package includes many new wilderness areas and additions to national parks. The Enhancement Act would increase the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 61,000 acres in exchange for a small, narrow road corridor (206 acres) leading from the remote community of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, Alaska.

“We are so grateful to Senator Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska), Rep. Don Young (R – Alaska), Sen. Mark Begich (D – Alaska) and former Senator Ted Stevens,” said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss. “We wouldn’t have made it this far without their support. This life-saving legislation means so much to the people of our community and to future generations. They deserve to have safe, affordable, dependable surface transportation access for health, safety and quality of life.”

“This bill would not be possible without the support of  Governor Sarah Palin and her predecessor, Frank Murkowski,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “Alaska is a full participant in this proposed exchange and we could not do this without the state’s support. We are also thankful to Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka who signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate bill,” Mayor Mack added. “Senator Akaka sympathizes with the community and understands this is a health and safety matter for the indigenous people of King Cove. We recognize that the Izembek wilderness is a special place. The Aleut people have been excellent stewards of the land for thousands of years, and we will continue to do so.”

Residents of the mostly Aleut (Alaska Native) city have been fighting for an access road for years. After the bill made it out of committee in both the House and the Senate, staff members from Committee Chairman Senator Jeff Bingaman’s and Senator Ron Wyden’s offices drafted a number of management regulations and compromise language to incorporate into the bill, to balance the needs of human life and possible environmental impacts to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. That compromise includes prohibiting any kind of commercial use of the road. An environmental impact statement must be conducted before the land exchange for a road corridor can be completed. The Secretary of the Interior must also determine that that the land exchange and the road corridor are in the public interest. For tribal and community members, getting an access road would be a welcome solution to the perennial transportation access problem. But the legislation still causes the King Cove (Native) Corporation some concern.

 “We are giving up an unprecedented amount of valuable habitat land for a road corridor through the wilderness to the Cold Bay airport,” said Della Trumble, member of the King Cove Corporation. “This land is who we are. But it’s worth it if we can protect the health and safety of residents who need to be medevaced out of the community. This bill would also dramatically improve the quality of life of the mostly Aleut residents living in King Cove by providing us with a reliable and safe link to the outside world. This is a monumental step forward.”

The King Cove Corporation (created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) is offering 18,000 acres of its prime habitat as part of the land exchange legislation. The State of Alaska is proposing to give the federal government 43,000 acres more, for a total of 61,000 acres. More than 45,000 acres of that land (74 %) would be designated as wilderness.

“This is a win-win solution for everyone concerned,” said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss.  “Not only does the federal government benefit from tens of thousands of acres of new wilderness land, but this road access has the potential to save many lives over the years.”
The public lands bill is expected to move to the House floor for a vote within the next two weeks.

Background Information:

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. Due to our severe weather, the craft does not operate on a consistent 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.”

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, without consulting with the local Native population. 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 funding 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 state-of-the-art 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 and that a road corridor connecting King Cove and Cold Bay is the only viable long-term option.

 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. The state would pay for the cost of the road 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 last fall. “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 Senator Lisa Murkowski and former Senator Ted Stevens introduced companion legislation (H.R. 2801 and S.1680) authorizing the land exchange.  Last fall, the Alaska Federation of Natives weighed in, passing 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.”