INTERIOR:

Babbitt says Izembek road is about seafood, not lives, enraging Murkowski

A proposed road through an Alaskan wilderness would be a boon to fishing jobs, but it's unnecessary for the safety of Alaskans, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote in an op-ed yesterday that inflamed tensions over the issue in Washington, D.C., and drew a harsh rebuke from Alaska's senior senator.

Babbitt, who served under President Clinton, said a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is about moving workers and seafood from the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery in King Cove, rather than to provide a life-saving route for residents to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, as road proponents argue.

Flights across the water from King Cove to Cold Bay are often grounded by weather, making access to Anchorage hospitals via Cold Bay unreliable.

"U.S. taxpayers shouldn't be fooled," Babbitt wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "The road to nowhere is what it was 20 years ago: a fairy tale as unchanging as Peter Pan."

His op-ed comes months after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the road and an associated land swap, arguing that a road through the refuge would irreparably harm its wildlife and wilderness values and that King Cove has other options to improve access to the Cold Bay airport, such as a marine ferry.

Babbitt was at Interior in 1998 when Congress appropriated $37.5 million to upgrade King Cove's medical facilities, purchase a $9 million hovercraft and build a 17-mile road to a new terminal northeast of town from which King Cove residents could depart more quickly for Cold Bay.

"Murkowski and the proponents of the road are still pushing for it as if the 1998 deal never happened," Babbitt said. "The hovercraft performed medevacs so well that the borough's mayor called it 'a lifesaving machine' in 2008."

Citing high costs and reliability concerns, the Aleutians East Borough discontinued the hovercraft service in late 2010 and eventually transferred the vessel to Akutan, where it was used to transport people and mail to a new airport on Akun Island.

Some conservationists are lobbying for the borough to invest in a sea ferry or for the Coast Guard to establish a year-round base in Cold Bay so helicopter rescues are a viable alternative.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the road's biggest backers, said those proposals are not technically or financially viable.

She wrote her own op-ed to the Times blasting Babbitt, but it has yet to be published, Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said.

"Mr. Babbitt's comments are ill-informed and, I suspect, purposely misleading," Dillon said yesterday in an email.

Murkowski and other road backers argue that the project is about human rights and would add 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands to the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula wildlife refuges, compensating for the impacts of the one-lane, gravel road.

Since 1980, 11 people have been killed in airplane crashes taking off from or landing into King Cove in three accidents. Road backers say more deaths will occur without a land-based route to Cold Bay.

"Somehow, Mr. Babbitt and his backers don't believe the Americans who live in King Cove are worthy of the same access to health care that their own families enjoy," Dillon said. "Babbitt can try to spin his own fairy tale about King Cove's plight, but he should be ashamed of himself for so cavalierly dismissing this genuine injustice."

While industry and local elected officials in the past have discussed how a road would benefit the region's seafood industry, the bill that Congress passed in 2009 authorizing Interior to approve a road explicitly barred it from being used for commercial purposes.

Conservationists worry that once a road is built, it would take only a rider from Congress to lift the restrictions on commercial travel.

The Izembek issue remains a major rift between Interior and Murkowski, who is the top Republican on the congressional panels that oversee Interior and its budget. It has already bitten the administration, with Murkowski holding up presidential nominees and riding herd over its budgets and legislative agenda (E&E Daily, Feb. 13).

Amid the dispute, Babbitt is not the only one to come to Jewell's defense.

The Center for American Progress yesterday issued a blog post blasting media outlets for what it argued was skewed coverage of Jewell's decision. The group said Murkowski's political donors have connections with the borough and Alaska seafood producers and that she was the recipient of Peter Pan's biggest political contribution in 2012.

"If approved, the so-called 'Road to Nowhere' would set a precedent as the first new road built in a protected wilderness area in the United States," wrote CAP senior fellow Matt Lee-Ashley.

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