For the past 35 years, residents of the isolated community of King Cove, Alaska, have been begging federal authorities for a road that would connect their community to the nearest all-weather airport.
In remote areas of Alaska, access to an airport isn’t just for leisure travel. According to The Daily Caller, in those 35 years, the town — population 989 — has had 18 residents die due to lack of prompt medical care that an all-weather airport would have provided.
“King Cove officials have claimed the road is necessary to access the airport in special circumstances, namely medical emergencies,” The Daily Caller noted. “The community has a clinic without a full-time physician, so residents are forced to fly more than 600 miles to Anchorage for major injuries and medical procedures such as childbirth.”
All the residents of King Cove wanted was an 11-mile road to the nearby village of Cold Bay, which does have an all-weather airport. In 2013, the Obama administration denied this request, citing environmental concerns.
The Trump administration is singing quite a different tune, however. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is apparently set to swap roughly 500 acres of federal land to build the one-lane non-commercial road that would allow residents of King Cove speedier medical care.
Steve Wackowski, a top Interior Department official in Alaska, told Alaska Public Media that after the planned swearing in of Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash in Washington D.C., “right afterwards, we’re signing the King Cove land deal. That’s scheduled.”
While the government shutdown might throw a wrench into the exact scheduling of the deal, Wackowski says it will happen soon no matter what.
“I feel confident in saying that if it’s not on Monday, we will get the deal signed in some form or fashion immediately once the government re-opens,” Wackowski said.
The problem, as is usual with these sorts of things, is with environmentalist concerns. The road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a 315,000-acre parcel of protected land designated in 1960. Twenty years later, an act of Congress designated almost the entirety of the Izembek as federally protected wilderness.
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In 2013, Obama-era Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell affirmed that wildlife was more important than human life to the administration she served.
“After careful consideration, I support the Service’s conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it,” Jewell said in her decision.
“Izembek is an extraordinary place — internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species — and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness. I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”
Of course, it wasn’t owed to future generations to ensure that they could survive– like the “future generation” of twins who died in 2007 after their mother went into labor prematurely and couldn’t get prompt medical care.
In the intervening five years, little seems to have been done to improve or meet community needs, in spite of the Department of the Interior promising a “commitment to assist in identifying and evaluating options that would improve access to affordable transportation and health care for the citizens of this remote Alaska community.”
In the decision, the Department of the Interior also “noted that nothing in the decision precludes the State of Alaska, the Aleutians East Borough, or the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay from implementing another alternative for transportation improvements outside of the Refuge, including enhancements to the dock at Cold Bay.”
Well, yes, something did preclude that — namely, the weather. The Daily Caller notes that “ships, medevacs, a hovercraft and a small airport” that were used to transport patients to Cold Bay were all unreliable thanks to the fact that being on a remote peninsula in the southeastern part of the state with the most extreme weather isn’t necessarily conducive to smooth operation of those forms of transit.
And then there’s the cost. Sixty-eight medivacs from King Cove to Cold Bay have taken place since the 2013 Obama administration decision, with some costing up to $210,000 of taxpayer money.
Five-hundred acres out of a 315,000-acre wildlife reserve is hardly a significant tradeoff for the preservation of human life. The Obama administration made a grave mistake in in rejecting the King Cove-Cold Bay road — a mistake that, thankfully, is being corrected by the new administration.
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