Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, only days after celebrating President Obama's signing of the landmark Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, is being asked to take an administrative scalpel to the massive legislation to strike out an Alaska road project that environmentalists say undermines the integrity of a long-established national wildlife refuge.
The provision, considered key to winning the Alaska congressional delegation's support for the lands bill, would allow for the construction of a 25-mile gravel road linking the Aleutian village of King Cove with an all-weather airport at Cold Bay, which for decades has been effectively cut off from the larger Alaskan Peninsula by the Izembeck National Wildlife Refuge and the Pacific Ocean.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who has long argued in favor of what she calls a public safety project, placed the road provision into the Senate version of the omnibus lands bill; Rep. Don Young (R) inserted the provision into the House version.
In exchange for permission to build the road across the Izembek refuge, the federal government would gain an additional 62,000 acres of land to be included in the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula wildlife refuges, resulting in a net gain of wilderness, according to those who have tracked the measure.
But some environmental groups argue the road -- intended only for emergency vehicles, taxis and some commercial traffic -- would bury or harm sensitive wetlands and damage vital habitat for migratory birds, caribou, brown bear, sea otters and other wildlife that call the refuge home.
"It's a huge concern," said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. "We still strongly oppose that provision. We fought against it in the legislative process, and we will continue to work to ensure that the wilderness and wildland values of the refuge are protected."
Others say the land deal violates a core ethic of the 106-year-old refuge system, which is to preserve unique landscapes and their resident wildlife.
Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said the Alaska road deal would break with longstanding federal policy on refuge management and warned it could potentially open millions of additional acres of protected federal land to similar deals.
"In terms of precedence, it could threaten wilderness across the country for years to come," Hirsche said. "It's a harmful provision and one that's completely out of place in a public lands bill."
He called on Salazar to kill the project by declaring it not in the public interest. "We'd like for him to make that determination immediately and be done with it," Hirsche said.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman in Salazar's office, said the secretary and his staff are reviewing the Izembek road project language and would not say when a decision would be made. "At this time we're just studying that portion of the bill," Barkoff said.
If Salazar allows the road project to proceed, Hirsche and others said they would challenge the project's environmental impact statement and individual federal permits necessary to complete construction, including wetlands dredge and fill permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.
"The game's not over," Hirsche said.
A 'huge net gain'
But not all environmentalists are girding for a fight. While opposed in principle to roadbuilding in wildlife refuges, these more moderate groups say the Izembek deal was a necessary political tradeoff to win Alaska lawmakers's support for the larger omnibus bill that extends wilderness protection to roughly 2.1 million acres in nine states.
"That's really a huge, huge net gain," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "In exchange [for the road], they may have to give up a portion of the preserve. That's not insignificant. But as far as compromises go, that was not much in order to get all that land designated as wilderness."
Local officials, meanwhile, pointed to the road project's public safety benefits.
Stanley Mack, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough that includes King Cove, hailed approval of the bill as a "milestone" for the area, which has sought to build the road since 1998. "If all goes well, this bill will vastly improve the quality of life for the mostly Aleut people of King Cove by providing safe, reliable surface transportation," he said in a statement.
Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski, also touted the project's benefits and bristled at critics who argue the public would be better served by keeping Cold Bay and its airport isolated.
"If we were talking about a small community in Indiana or Kansas that was isolated and trapped during emergencies, we wouldn't be having this discussion. There wouldn't be any debate about the need for the road," he said. "But Alaska is out of sight, out of mind."
Hirsche countered that the federal government has already spent millions of dollars to provide emergency access between the 800-person village of King Cove and Cold Bay, whose 2008 population was 90, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce. That includes helping local officials purchase a 56-passenger hovercraft capable of reaching Cold Bay from the King Cove landing site in about 20 minutes. Hirsche said a similar overland journey, particularly in bad weather, could take hours to complete.
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.