For years, King Cove residents have clashed with environmental activists over their plan to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Locals say it could save lives by making medevacs easier, but activists argue that it would ruin ecosystems.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew it would get plenty of responses from both sides when it asked for public comment on the road this summer. But they may have gotten a little more than they bargained for.
It’s taken Fish and Wildlife three months to tally public response to the road King Cove wants to build through Izembek.
The final count: 72,000 comments.
Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Bruce Woods says the agency expected a deluge of opinions — the issue has always been controversial. But after sorting through them, Woods says most of the comments were actually petitions and form letters from environmental groups. One Washington-based group, Defenders of Wildlife, managed to rack up 58,000 responses.
While Fish and Wildlife is noting the form letters, Woods says their impact on the road project is limited.
“A public comment period on any scientific issue isn’t a popularity contest,” Woods says. “The sheer number of votes that don’t provide any new information are certainly going to have less influence than a smaller number of votes that bring new and well-annotated information to bear on the issue.”
Woods adds that some of the most interesting comments came from public hearings held around the state this May. He says citizens living near King Cove and Cold Bay tend to favor the road, while Alaskan residents outside the region generally oppose it.
After culling form submissions, Woods says Fish and Wildlife is left with 1,800 unique letters that raise noteworthy scientific points.
“The substantive comments were relatively equal on both sides of the issue,” he says. “A lot of them were on things like how we had characterized the environmental impacts to specific species and habitats of the road. In many of those cases, comments [were] saying we had understated the risk and comments [were] saying we had overstated the risk.”
Fish and Wildlife will spend the next few weeks responding to these detailed comments. They’ll incorporate those responses into their final environmental impact statement, which should be finished in early fall.