Appeals Court Decision Creates New Barrier to Road to Cold Bay

A June 15 federal appeals court decision has granted an Interior Department motion to dismiss a case in which residents of King Cove on the Alaska Peninsula, have sought for years to complete a road connecting their fisheries community with the all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision was hailed by environmental entities opposed to connecting existing roads between the two communities as a victory for area wildlife. Proponents of the road, who see that connection as a necessity for getting people with medical emergencies to Anchorage – 650 air miles away – already are pondering their next legal steps.

At issue is the fact that 11 miles of the road would run through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which includes thousands of acres of extensive wetlands important to migrating geese and other birds that stop there to feed.

King Cove, home of a large Peter Pan Seafood processing facility, has no hospital or full-time physician, and the local clinic cannot treat life-threatening cardiac issues, respiratory illnesses or traumatic injuries. In such cases, the clinic must call for an air ambulance or the Coast Guard to transport patients to medical care in Anchorage.

Since 2013 there have been 206 medical evacuations. Eighteen deaths have been associated with the lack of land access in medical emergencies from King Cove to Cold Bay.

The communities of King Cove and Cold Bay, with an all-weather airport, were separated in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter created the national wildlife refuge as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Residents of King Cove were not consulted before the act passed.

Della Trumble, chief executive officer of the King Cove Native Corp., said her group believes the land exchange is still legal and valid.

“As Native people, we will continue to fight for our rights and demand tribal consultation, which the Department of Interior failed to honor before executing its March 14, 2023 decision to terminate the land exchange,” she said.

A territory transfer between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp. to allow for the road connection between King Cove and Cold Bay to be completed, was initially approved by then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in July 2019. It would have allowed the exchange of some 200 acres within Izembek to the state of Alaska, for a single lane gravel road to be built to connect the two communities.

But in March of this year, current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland determined that the land exchange contained procedural flaws and was not consistent with departmental policy. She issued a statement saying that the debate around approving construction of the road created a false choice “between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities.”

On June 15, Chief Judge Mary Margua of the Ninth Circuit Court granted Interior’s motion to dismiss the case. The motion also vacated a 2020 decision by District Court Judge John Sedwick stating that the 2019 land exchange was invalid.

The King Cove Corp. maintains that that the June 15 decision means the 2019 land exchange agreement remains valid.