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Feds to Alaskans: No road for humans, lots of land for animals

  • Aleutians East Borough.jpg

    The fishing community of King Cove is located in the Aleutians East Borough, which stretches from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the easternmost Aleutian Islands. Residents of the Cove have been asking the government for three decades to build a one-lane road that would connect the Cove to the nearby hamlet of Cold Bay.Aleutians East Borough

  • alaskamap.jpg

    Above is a map showing King Cove and the community of Cold Bay, which residents want to connect with a road.

In one of Alaska's most remote outposts, where a thousand hardy souls make their homes, the Obama administration has put the fate of birds and bears above the lives of people, blocking construction of an 11-mile gravel trail connecting a tiny fishing hamlet to a life-saving airport. 

For more than three decades the predominantly Aleut fishing community of King Cove has been fighting to build a one-lane,gravel track connecting the Cove to the nearby hamlet of Cold Bay. What they have gotten is 30 years of flat-out federal refusals or stall tactics.

Cove residents say a road is necessary so they can reach an all-weather airport in Cold Bay that will transport them to Anchorage, about 625 miles away, for medical treatment. They say that in emergency situations, it's a matter of life and death. 

Late last year, though, the Department of Interior announced it was rejecting plans for a proposed land swap that would allow the road to be built. The Dec. 23 decision cited the negative environmental impact on grizzly bears, caribou and water fowl like the Pacific black brant.

“(Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s) decision on King Cove was heartless and wrong, and her message to me ever since has been that I need to ‘just get over it and move on,’” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told FoxNews.com. “She thinks it’s over because she’s made her decision. But it’s not done. And it is not going to be done until those people have access to safety.”

The senator has already threatened to hold up the nomination of Rhea Suh, the president’s pick for assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. There has been talk of pushback on other nominations as well as options in the budget process.

The Cove, located on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, is tucked in the middle of a storm corridor -- a fate that brings dense fog and high winds to the area forcing its small airport to shut down 100 days out of the year. With no functional airport and no road, at times there is no way out. 

According to local Aleutian elders, 19 people have died since 1980 as a result of the impossible-to-navigate weather conditions during emergency evacuations.

To Murkowski, that’s 19 too many.

Murkowski used her annual address to a joint session of the Alaska legislature to call out the Interior Department over its rejection of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

“I am going to be a hell-raiser on this,” Murkowski said during her speech adding, “We’re going to get this road built.”

During an August visit to Alaska, Jewell was told that building a road that connects King Cove and Cold Bay was vital. But in December, Jewell rejected the road saying it would jeopardize waterfowl in the refuge.

“She stood up in the gymnasium and told those kids, ‘I’ve listened to your stories, now I have to listen to the animals,” Democratic state Rep. Bob Herron told a local television station. “You could have heard a pin drop in that gymnasium.”  

The city of King Cove first tried to get a road through in 1998. When that failed, residents came to a compromise with Congress where the city would receive $37 million for water access to Cold Bay, which included the use of a hovercraft. But then bad weather and costly upkeep hit, and the project was grounded.

Since then, the Obama administration has put up roadblocks -- saying the project would carry a significant economic burden.

But others say it’s not the case.

The land required for the road is less than 1 percent of the total refuge.

The land exchange that was proposed – and denied – would take 206 acres from the Izembek refuge for the road and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. In exchange, the refuge would receive 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land owned by the King Cove Native Corp., which comes out to be 56,393 acres in exchange for 1,806 acres.

The Interior Department, though, argued that giving up refuge land would set a bad precedent. 

Robert Dillion, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the message the federal government is sending to the small Alaskan community is pretty clear: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

He also strongly refutes claims that the real motivation for building a road comes down to funneling in federal dollars to the state.

“People think this is an economic issue, but it’s not -- this is a moral issue,” Dillion told FoxNews.com. “The people of King Cove want a small road through what was their backyard.”

FoxNews.com made multiple requests over several days to the Interior Department for comment, but they were not returned.