King Cove Residents Congratulate USFWS for Moving Forward with Land Exchange & Proposed Road EIS Process

March 16, 2012

King Cove, AK – March 16, 2012 – Community and tribal leaders from the City of King Cove and the Aleutians East Borough are congratulating the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) for moving forward with the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for a land exchange, which could allow construction of a proposed road corridor linking remote King Cove to the Cold Bay airport. Today, the USFWS announced that the agency has issued the draft EIS.

“This has been a decades-long battle for the indigenous people,” said Della Trumble, King Cove (Native) Corporation and Agdaagux Tribe spokeswoman. “We are relieved the process is moving forward. Our community has already lost too many lives in the struggle to get access to the Cold Bay airport and the outside world during emergencies.  We’re glad the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listened to us throughout this process and has issued the draft EIS. We hope it will allow this critical matter to be evaluated fairly.”

The City of King Cove, the Agdaagux Tribe, the Belkofski Tribal Council, the Aleutians East Borough and the State of Alaska are cooperating agency partners in the EIS process. Late last month (Feb. 22, 2012), the USFWS, the lead agency, held a government-to-government consultation with the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove and the Belkofski Tribal Council in King Cove. About 80 tribal members attended the meeting. Many provided tearful and heartfelt testimony about how the government created the Izembek wilderness more than three decades ago without any consultation from the people of King Cove.

“These injustices need to be corrected,” said Trumble. “We should be taken seriously by the federal government, and particularly the Secretary of the Interior, who has a trust responsibility to us. We have sacrificed too much already, and it is time to make it right.” 

The issuance of the DEIS comes three years after the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Land Exchange Act was passed as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Package. Pending approval by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Enhancement Act would establish a process to increase the size of the Izembek and the Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 56,000 acres of pristine land from the King Cove Corporation and the State of Alaska in exchange for about 200 acres of land from the federal government to construct a one-lane gravel road. This small road will be the missing transportation link connecting King Cove to the Cold Bay Airport.

“This generous land offer is unprecedented,” said Trumble. More than 45,000 acres of that exchange would be designated as wilderness. Comparable examples of land exchange amounts cannot be found anywhere else in the United States. We understood that our situation requires a creative and unique solution, and that means giving up some of our valuable land.”

“We are willing to give back to the federal government about 20% of the lands that same government gave us to settle aboriginal land rights as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” said Dean Gould, President of the King Cove Corporation. “That speaks highly to the importance of this issue to our people and to their health, safety and well-being.”

The latest announcement is just the next step in the National Environmental Policy Act process. The EIS has a comment period for the public to weigh in. Public meetings are tentatively scheduled to be held in April or May in King Cove, Sand Point, False Pass, Cold Bay and Nelson Lagoon. The final EIS is scheduled for release later this year. The Secretary of the Interior is expected to make his decision on whether the land exchange and the small road corridor are in the public’s interest once the EIS process has been completed.

Without the proposed road corridor, the community must rely on small plane travel to link them to the outside world. King Cove is surrounded by mountains and is well-known to be treacherous in bad weather.  The community is often plagued by gale-force winds and dense fog. Flights are delayed or cancelled about 50 percent of the time.

Just last year, the community lost its only other transportation option.  The Aleutians East Borough (AEB) began providing hovercraft transportation service in August 2007. However, the craft faced frequent obstacles such as severe and unpredictable weather combined with excessive costs.  In November 2011, the AEB announced that it was no longer financially feasible to continue operations, so the Borough suspended hovercraft operations.  That leaves the community with only one option when the weather is too stormy for plane travel during medical emergencies — the U.S. Coast Guard, which is usually based in Kodiak and is about 430 miles away.

“A year ago, I was medevaced from King Cove by the Coast Guard,” said Agnes Gould, a longtime King Cove resident. “The winds were blowing 70 miles per hour or more and if they did not get me out, I would have died.  Even when I got to Anchorage, they did not expect me to live.  I am thankful to be here today and thankful that the Coast Guard was able to make it in to get me.  I sincerely hope that the decision for a road between these two communities is the accepted alternative,” she said.

Last winter, on at least one occasion, severe weather delayed the Coast Guard from getting into King Cove during a medevac. Fortunately, the patient survived. However, residents are worried this won’t always be the case.

During the last four decades, eleven people died during unsuccessful medevacs and other plane trips either to or from King Cove. Cold Bay’s airport, located about 25 miles away, has the third largest paved, all-weather runway in Alaska and is the community’s link to the outside world.

“The road (to the Cold Bay airport) is and has always been the only safe, reliable transportation option for the life, safety and health of our residents,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “It is the only workable long-term solution.”