Alaska sues Feds over access road

Last week Gov. Sean Parnell announced in a press release that his administration issued a notice of intent to sue the federal government over an access road from King Cove, Alaska, through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the town of Cold Bay, Alaska. The road would provide life-saving access for King Cove residents who often must rely on the Coast Guard to airlift them to Cold Bay in order to meet up with a Life-Flight plane for transport to an Anchorage or Seattle area hospital during medical emergencies.

In compliance with the Public Land Management act of 2009, and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Secretary of the Interior was charged with providing an Environmental Impact Statement before construction could begin. The road, a single lane gravel passageway with 11-foot safety turnouts and a chain barrier or bollard barrio on each side, would be 19.4 to 21.6 miles long.

Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell released a record of decision, regarding the land transfer last December 23. The document states that non-action is the “preferred alternative” because “Izembek refuge is internationally recognized for its unique and ecologically significant wetlands and wildlife. Selecting Alternative 1 preserves the integrity of the Izembek Refuge and Izembek Wilderness, ensures continued protection of unique and internationally recognized habitats, and maintains the integrity of designated wilderness.”

In his press release, Parnell implored Jewell to reconsider her decision placing the possible temporary disturbance of birds above the health and safety of Alaskans.

Parnell said, “The state will pursue all options to help Alaskan residents.”

The notice of intent is required to be submitted at least 180 days prior to the state being allowed to bring a lawsuit against the federal government. The press release states the lawsuit is based on a historic right of way use under Revised Statute 2477, a section of the Mining Act of 1866.

With a population of about 900 in the winter and about 1,400 in the summer, King Cove residents now rely on air and sea transportation in order to travel outside of their community. However, with wind gusts commonly up to 80 mph this can prove to be difficult and sometimes impossible.

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UAA student Devan Mack said there are about 150-200 days of windy weather on King Cove with wind gusts typically ranging from 25-30 mph. These windy days often escalate to severe weather.

“We don’t have any trees, just bushes,” Mack said. “We barely have any nice days, but trying to get out for transportation is the hard part.”

A medical evacuation out of King Cove costs around $200,000.

Since last January, there have been eight medical emergencies in which the Coast Guard rescued victims from King Cove in order to meet up with a Life-Flight for a transport to Anchorage. Three of the evacuations were able to make it into King Cove directly. However, due to the weather, the other evacuations had to wait out a blizzard that lasted 13 hours.

King Cove resident Agnes Beaver knows what that can be like. Several years ago she was suffering from severe abdominal pains and needed to be seen by physicians in Anchorage. There were high winds that night, which made traveling by boat or small plane impossible.

“I don’t remember much about that night,” Beaver said, “but the winds were blowing 70 miles an hour. I would have died if I stayed there that night.”

The Coast Guard was eventually called in to rescue Beaver, who was able to receive life saving treatment in Anchorage. Beaver said because there is no road, her children want her to move to Anchorage in case of another health-related emergency. She said she does not want to leave King Cove because she would be leaving her home and her Agdaagux culture

King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said residents experiencing medical emergencies will often have to wait for hours to receive the help they need. Mack said several men recently had severe heart issues and were stuck due to the bad weather.

“I remember once it was really nasty weather, even the boats couldn’t get over here,” Mack said.

The Coast Guard is stationed in Cold Bay during the fishing and crabbing season to help with search and rescue and disasters at sea, but once the season ends they go back to their base in Kodiak. Mack said they will often spend a night out at sea on a mission and return back to King Cove for medical evacuations.

The lack of a road doesn’t only interfere with medical issues.

“The kids at school, they love their sports, like basketball, but their trips get cancelled because of bad weather,” Beaver said.

Despite this, some trips don’t get cancelled because the kids want to go.

“A lot of prayer goes up (for the kids),” Beaver said.

Mack said there is a definite need for the proposed road.

“We need it. We have been battling this since 1975. If it (the lawsuit) takes place and gets us the road, lets get ‘er done. We have not stopped our fight prior to this, and we will continue to fight.”