ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A proposed road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska, rejected by President Barack Obama, is getting new life in the Donald Trump administration.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, announced Monday that the U.S. Interior Department has granted Alaska permission to survey wilderness within Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for a possible road between two rural communities, King Cove and Cold Bay, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
The refuge portion of the road would be about 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) long.
Flights into King Cove are notoriously unpredictable because of strong winds and mountains. Izembek, an internationally recognized haven for migratory waterfowl, stands between King Cove and Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport.
“For far too long, King Cove residents suffering from medical emergencies have had to brave harsh elements just to get health care,” Walker said in the announcement. “They travel by boat or helicopter — often in inclement weather — to access the Cold Bay airport in order to be medevaced out. Our fellow Alaskans deserve better than that.”
Environmental groups say the rural community has other, better alternatives, such as boats, and for decades have fought an intrusion into the refuge.
“Under previous administrations, the Interior Department has twice conducted exhaustive, science-based studies of the proposed road and determined it to not be in the public interest,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans of The Wilderness Society in a statement.
Congress in 1997 addressed the King Cove transportation issue with a $37.5 million appropriation for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The Aleutians East Borough took the boat out of service after deciding it was too expensive and unreliable.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 concluded that a road over a narrow isthmus in the refuge could cause irrevocable damage. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a proposed land swap that would have traded less than 3 square miles (7.8 sq. kilometers) of refuge for 97.5 square miles (252.5 sq. kilometers) of state and private land. A Fish and Wildlife analysis concluded the exchange could not compensate for the special qualities of existing refuge lands.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, vowed to work with Trump to reverse that decision.
Meadow Bailey, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said Monday the road survey will be conducted by department employees using hand tools.
They will walk through previous proposed road alignments, assessing which one would have the least impact on the refuge, Bailey said. There will be no drilling.
“It will just be eyes on ground,” Bailey said.
The survey is planned for July and will take about a week at a cost of less than $10,000, Bailey said.