U.S. House Approves Izembek & Alaska Peninsula Refuge Enhancement Act

March 25, 2009

King Cove, AK – March 25, 2009 – The mayors from King Cove, Alaska and the Aleutians East Borough as well as Native leaders are applauding members of Congress after the U.S. House approved the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Refuge Enhancement Act, part of the Omnibus Public Lands Package.  The bill passed 285 to 140 today. Last week, the bill passed in the Senate 77 – 20.  The package contains more than160 public land bills affecting all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The Enhancement Act would establish a process to increase the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 61,000 acres in exchange for a small gravel single-lane road corridor (206 acres) leading from the remote community of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, Alaska.

“We are so appreciative of all the work that Representative Don Young (R – Alaska), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska), and Sen. Mark Begich (D – Alaska) have put into this bill,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “Their stanch bipartisan support has allowed us to reach this milestone today. If all goes well, this bill will vastly improve the quality of life for the mostly Aleut (Alaska Native) people of King Cove by providing safe, reliable surface transportation.” 

“Governor Sarah Palin’s support of this bill has also been essential to making this legislation move forward,” said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss. “We want to thank her for her assistance. The State of Alaska is a fundamental partner in helping to accomplish this critical project.”

“We also appreciate Senator Daniel Akaka (D – Hawaii), who agreed to sign on as a co-sponsor of the Senate bill,” Weiss added. “Both he, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D – Hawaii) and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D – American Samoa) understand indigenous issues and have been very supportive of King Cove’s needs.” 

The Senate initially approved the public land package in January, but the House failed to accept the Senate bill last week after falling just two votes shy of the two-thirds needed for passage under suspension of the House rules. The package started moving forward again last week after senators endorsed the bill on a test vote. On March 19, 2009, it passed in the Senate by an overwhelming margin. Now that it has been approved in the House, it’s expected to go to President Obama’s desk for his signature on Monday.

A few months ago, compromises were made in the Enhancement Act include prohibiting any kind of commercial use of the road. In addition, an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be conducted before the land exchange can be completed. As a condition of the exchange, the Secretary of the Interior must determine that that the land exchange and the road corridor are in the public interest. 

 “We’re hopeful we can overcome these hurdles,” said Della Trumble, spokeswoman for the King Cove (Native) Corporation. “This issue has plagued our community for decades. Many people have died because they were unable to reach the airport in Cold Bay during poor weather. The King Cove Corporation has agreed to relinquish a massive amount of our valuable habitat. Even though this land represents who we are as indigenous people, if this helps to save lives and provides safe and dependable transportation to and from Cold Bay, it’s worth it. We are very grateful that we have made it this far,” she added.

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. In addition, the State of Alaska is proposing to include in the exchange with the federal government 43,000 acres, 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 situation for everyone involved,” said King Cove Mayor Ernest Weiss.  “The federal government will receive thousands of acres of new wilderness land. And this small road corridor will likely save many lives in the future – lives that represent our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

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 cannot 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 extensively 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 special purpose 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 that will ensure medevac access for King Cove residents.

If the exchange 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, former 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 to the Senate Energy and Resources Committee. “The Administration recognizes the legitimate needs of Alaska residents to have access to medical, dental and other health care,” he added.

In 2006, 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.”