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Jewell Rejects Road Through Izembek

By | December 23, 2013

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell won’t allow a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

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The Interior Department delivered the news today, about four months after the secretary visited the community and the refuge.

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage.

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Residents of King Cove have been asking the Interior Department for permission to build a one lane gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife refuge for decades. They want easier access to Cold Bay, which has an all weather airport.

The community offered the federal government 60,000 acres in exchange for the small amount of land needed to build the road.

Bonita Babcock, a community health aide in King Cove, spoke with Jewell when she visited the village in late summer. She says Jewell’s decision is devastating:

“She came all the way out here. She saw what we were facing and yet, she still didn’t care,” Babcock said. “It’s just a slap in the face. It’s insulting.”

Babcock says severe weather frequently shuts down air travel in and out of King Cove and the road is necessary for health and safety reasons.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service had previously denied the road because it would disrupt the birds that nest in the refuge and the rare eel grass beds they depend on.

Jewell traveled to King Cove in August with Senator Lisa Murkowski, who threatened to hold up Jewell’s confirmation until she agreed to a visit. She spent a day touring the community and its medical clinic and spent time in the refuge.

At a press conference in Anchorage in September, Jewell said she had a tough decision to make.

“I think that there have been efforts to talk about a tradeoff between human safety and wildlife and the reality is I think we want both so I understand the interests on both sides, it’s difficult and I don’t think that’s a reasonable tradeoff,” Jewell said.

The Interior Department wouldn’t provide someone to interview for this story. The 20 page decision says, “Construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge would lead to significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources that would not be offset by the protection of other lands to be received in the exchange.”

Murkowski calls Jewell’s conclusions “heartless.” She got a call from Jewell this morning, while she was sitting in the Fred Meyer parking lot in midtown Anchorage, preparing to buy some last minute Christmas items.

Murkowski says the alternatives Jewell is proposing, like building a better dock in Cold Bay, aren’t feasible:

“I said I will sit down with you in January when I get back, but right now I can’t even listen to what you are proposing, because they are just so inadequate, given the situation and the circumstances,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski says she was especially offensive to King Cove residents to deliver the news two days before Christmas.

But a long list of environmental groups are praising the decision. They argue the road would have set a precedent and made it easier to build roads through other wilderness areas. Nicole Whittington-Evans is Alaska director of The Wilderness Society.

“She took in all sides and aspects and came to her own conclusion based on the facts of the issue and we are celebrating that this wilderness area will remain wild for years to come,” Whittington-Evans said.

Whittington-Evans says she doesn’t believe the road is the best alternative to meet the health and safety needs of King Cove residents. King Cove residents say they will never give up their fight to build a road to Cold Bay. And Senator Murkowski echoes that sentiment.

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