Isabel Ricker, Landscape Conservation Coordinator
A few months ago we told you about an important milestone being reached in the battle to preserve the wilderness and wetland integrity of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This occurred when the Fish and Wildlife Service released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) recommending against building a $30 million road through the refuge. When a federal agency issues a final EIS, it has to wait at least 30 days before it can finalize its recommendation and begin its implementation. When the Service issued the Izembek EIS, the final decision rested in the hands of then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, but he subsequently retired from office without resolving the dispute over the proposed Izembek road.
So where do things stand at this point with regards to that road? Despite having fallen off the political radar screen in recent weeks, the future of this incredible wildlife refuge remains as uncertain as ever. And for that we can thank Congressional politics playing out as usual.
The problem stemmed from Salazar’s retirement and the need for the Senate to confirm his proposed successor, Sally Jewell. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska threatened to block Jewell’s nomination unless the Department reversed the Service’s recommendation against the Izembek road. So at the last moment before a vote on her nomination, an unfortunate deal was struck by the Department which agreed to seek further public comment from the supporters of the road. The deal between Senator Murkowski and Interior will likely delay a final decision on Izembek for many months, but it does not bind or force the Department to ultimately approve the road. So the fate of Izembek now rests in Sally Jewell’s hands.
Izembek was established in 1960 to protect some of the most distinctive and important wetlands in the world, and is home to an abundance of wildlife, including 98% of the world’s population of Pacific black brant (a sea bird), as well as grizzly bear, caribou, and salmon. The proposed road would bisect refuge and designated wilderness lands in order to connect the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay, crossing sensitive wetlands as well as steep slopes prone to avalanches. Numerous studies – by the federal government, the state of Alaska and wildlife experts – have concluded since the 1980s that a road through Izembek would permanently and significantly damage the wilderness and wildlife habitat value of the refuge. Furthermore, the road would set a dangerous precedent of sacrificing our nation’s protected wilderness national wildlife refuges for indefensible development projects.
The damage from the road is not being exaggerated. In the final EIS for the project, which was released earlier this year, the Service determined that the road would require the construction of eight bridges, 19 culverts and 254 stream crossings. Despite this unambiguous assessment by the Service, proponents of the road continued to push for its approval, saying that the road is a public health necessity for King Cove. Ironically, the village of King Cove had previously been provided with a $9 million all-weather hovercraft to cross the bay in medical emergencies to the air strip at Cold Bay, but the community ultimately gave the hovercraft away.
The hovercraft that they no longer wanted was able to reach Cold Bay in 20 minutes in a medical emergency. By contrast, the proposed road would take more than two hours to travel, even in the best of weather conditions. The hovercraft had a 100% success rate with 30 medical evacuations, while the road would be impassable for much of the year due to frequent icing, high winds, blizzards and other inclement weather. Pete Mjos, the region’s former U.S. Public Health Service director, has said that attempting to travel on the proposed road during the region’s extreme winter storms would be “foolish beyond reason” and “would clearly jeopardize life.”
The best estimates suggest that between past efforts to enhance medical services to King Cove and the construction of the proposed road, the final bill to the American taxpayer would be close to $75 million, an extraordinary expense in a time of federal budget austerity. Two weeks ago, Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post that details the decades-long history of King Cove’s pork-barrel projects and the environmental consequences of this road.
Secretary of the Interior Jewell will face many tough decisions in her new position, but the Izembek road should not be one of them. While Izembek may be politically challenging to decide, from an economic and environmental perspective, it is easy and self-evident – the road must be rejected. We urge the new secretary to make the right decision – the honest and responsible decision – and preserve this iconic wilderness wildlife refuge. Both American taxpayers and the Izembek wildlife will thank her.