(CN) – The Interior Department has completed a land swap that will allow Alaska to build a gravel road through a wildlife refuge in the southwestern part of the state.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the deal on Monday, concluding a three-decade fight that pitted environmentalists worried about the destructive potential of a road traversing through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge against officials who say the road is necessary to connect the remote community of King Cove to essential services.
“Above all, the federal government’s job is to keep our people safe and respect our treaty commitments with Native Americans and Alaska Natives,” Zinke said in a statement. “Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that’s just wrong.”
Environmentalists predictably blasted the move.
“Izembek National Wildlife Refuge protects some of the world’s most unique, fragile and essential wildlife habitat, but this administration thinks nothing of bulldozing a road through the middle of it, scarring the refuge forever,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. “Izembek Refuge belongs to all Americans, and we will fight this illegal backroom deal that would irreparably damage this vital wilderness preserve in court.”
The village of King Cove, with a population of about 900 people mostly comprised of Alaska Natives called the Aleut, is located on a remote portion of the Aleutian peninsula and currently lacks ground connection to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Republican from Alaska who chairs the committee that oversees the Department of Interior’s budget and activities, has long made the construction of the road a priority. Murkowski and members of the two tribes in King Cove – the Agdaagux and Belkofski tribes – have long maintained the road is necessary to transport people who need emergency medical services, particularly in bad weather.
“Access to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay is truly a matter of life and death to us, so we are eternally grateful to all those who have listened to the people of our region,” said Della Trumble, a member of the local Agdaagux tribe and a spokeswoman for King Cove Native Corp.
A tribal government, King Cove Native Corp. agreed to cede about 500 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in exchange for the right to build the road.
King Cove is currently only reachable by air or by sea. The U.S. Coast Guard must either boat or fly helicopters into the village in events of medical emergency.
Zinke said more than 18 deaths have occurred over the past 30 years which were otherwise preventable had adequate transportation options been available.
From the Cold Bay airport, patients are usually flown the more than 600 miles to Anchorage for medical procedures.
“For decades, the people of King Cove have asked for what virtually every other American already takes for granted – a reliable way to protect their health and safety and improve their quality of life,” Murkowski said on Monday.
Monday’s press event announcing the land swap was held at Murkowski’s office in the midst of a government shutdown for budgetary reasons.
The land swap and the environmental analysis of the road construction through the refuge faces likely legal challenges by environmental organizations.
Defenders of Wildlife and other advocates have long maintained the Republicans are crying crocodile tears over medical access for the tribes, saying their true interest in building the roads is economic.
Japan-based Peter Pan Seafoods operates a large cannery in King Cove, where large amounts of King crab, salmon and halibut are processed. The company says it will not use the road for commercial purposes, but acknowledges it will benefit its employees.
The agreement stipulates the road will be used primarily for noncommercial purposes, but environmentalists are wary of the legal latitude baked into it.