PUBLIC LANDS:

Interior ready to kill proposed land swap, road through Alaska refuge

The Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended against a proposed land exchange that would allow a 20-mile road through the heart of Alaska's pristine Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, pleasing environmentalists who bitterly opposed it but angering state leaders who say the road is a public safety priority for nearby residents.

At issue is FWS's final environmental impact statement (EIS) released today that includes a "preferred alternative" recommending against the road project through the Izembek refuge on the Aleutian Islands that would have provided a land route between King Cove and the Cold Bay Airport, which are separated by several miles of water.

The draft EIS for the road and land swap released last spring did not include a preferred alternative (E&ENews PM, March 16, 2012).

The final EIS will be published tomorrow in the Federal Register, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to issue a final decision within 30 days, said Bruce Woods, an FWS spokesman in Anchorage, Alaska.

Barring unforeseen changes, Salazar's record of decision "would relate to the final EIS," Woods said, essentially ending the controversial proposal to transfer 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands to the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula wildlife refuges in exchange for 206 acres of refuge lands to construct a single-lane gravel road connecting the towns of King Cove and Cold Bay.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred alternative would protect the heart of a pristine landscape that Congress designated as wilderness and that serves as vital habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, shorebirds and waterfowl -- including 98 percent of the world's population of Pacific black brant," Salazar said today in a statement. "After extensive dialogue and exhaustive scientific evaluation, the agency has identified a preferred path forward that will ensure this extraordinary refuge and its wilderness are conserved and protected for future generations."

FWS Director Dan Ashe today said the very detailed study outlined in the final EIS left the Obama administration little choice but to reject the land swap and road proposal.

"The weight of this scientific evidence demonstrates that building a road through the refuge would irretrievably damage the ecological functions of the refuge and impair its ability to provide vital support for native wildlife," Ashe said in a statement.

But the apparent end to the land exchange proposal angered some Alaskan leaders, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who successfully sponsored legislation authorizing the road and land swap that was included in the 2009 public lands omnibus act, which designated 2.1 million acres in nine states as national wilderness.

The 2009 law gives Interior the authority to approve the exchange but leaves it up to the secretary to determine whether it is in the public's best interest to do so.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) have also backed the road proposal.

Local Alaskan and tribal officials say the road is needed to provide a safe, reliable means for year-round access to medical services that are not available in King Cove. Residents there currently use hovercrafts, airplanes and boats to cross Cold Bay, and Murkowski has called the road a public safety issue.

"This decision is unacceptable and reflects a wanton disregard for the lives of the Aleut people who have called the Aleutians home for thousands of years," Murkowski said today in a statement. "It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death to the people of King Cove. Too many people have died already for there to be any legitimate excuse for further delay."

A dozen deaths have been attributed to the lack of a road over the past 30 years, said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski and the Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"When you consider the number of life-threatening accidents that have occurred due to the challenges of flying into King Cove during foul weather, I believe there is no greater good than providing safe road access to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay," Murkowski said in her statement.

"It's not surprising that people have lost faith in their government when irresponsible decisions like this are handed down from Washington," she added. "If the environmental review process doesn't allow for valuing the health and safety of a community, then it is irrevocably broken."

A win for 'sound science'

Environmentalists, however, strongly opposed the project, saying the road would fragment critical wetlands used by thousands of migrating birds. They urged Salazar to simply kill the project, arguing that the section of the national refuge where the road would be built is part of a federally designated wilderness area and should remain untouched.

They said today that the preferred alternative in the final EIS demonstrates that the federal review process worked the way it is supposed to work.

"I think it's fantastic. I think sound science has guided the FWS in its decision," said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association. "It's a win for wildlife, it's a win for wilderness and it's a win for taxpayers. We hope that Salazar uses [the final EIS] to make a public interest determination against the road."

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, echoed Sorenson-Groves, saying the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is an ecologically unique refuge in the state and not suitable for a road.

"The Wilderness values of this unique refuge are truly irreplaceable -- from the quarter of a million migratory birds that land every fall, to the tundra swans that live on the refuge year-round," Shogan said today in a statement. "Gray, minke and killer whales migrate along the coast by the thousands as sea otters frolic in the lagoon. The brown bear habitat is unparalleled, and herds of caribou are known to wander through in the fall."

The Alaska Wilderness League and other critics also argued that King Cove has already received more than $50 million in federal and state funding, including a 56-passenger hovercraft capable of reaching Cold Bay from the King Cove landing site in about 20 minutes. And they argue that while the hovercraft has proved unreliable, a road won't be any more reliable during the brutal Alaska winters.

"We commend FWS for its analysis and making the right decision for the American taxpayer and for the heritage of our nation's most important public lands," Shogan said.

Murkowski, however, is not giving up. She said she plans to ask Salazar to meet with the residents of King Cove to discuss the issue and explain why a road is not appropriate.

"The fight is not over," she said.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.