King Cove Road Faces Another Round of Scrutiny by Appeals Court Judges

There’s still no end in sight for the years’ long dispute over whether to connect shorter links between the all-weather airport at Cold Bay, Alaska, to the Aleutian fishing community of King Cove, through a one-lane gravel road passing through Izembeck National Wildlife Refuge.

A decision handed down in mid-November by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision reached earlier in 2022 by another three-judge panel that approved of a land swap between the federal government and the King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

A panel including more than two dozen attorneys with the Ninth Circuit Court was to review briefs from the case to determine whether a fair decision was reached.

Residents of King Cove, home of a large Peter Pan seafood processing plant, have been advocating for decades for the road, which would pass through the wildlife refuge, to get people with medical emergencies to the Cold Bay airport for transport to advanced medical facilities.

During whether extremes, when even the Coast Guard cannot fly into the small King Cove airport, the only way to reach Cold Bay is a three-hour ride via fishing boat.

“It happened so fast I was just trying to digest it,” said Della Keats, executive director of the King Cove Corp., which received land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, said of the appeals court decision.

Laura Tanis, communications director for the Aleutians East Borough, which includes King Cove, said that the Borough was saddened to see the national and local environmental groups opposed to a road needed for safe, dependable transportation for medical necessities.

“This is an environmental justice issue, and we’re hopeful this matter can be resolved in the near future,” she commented.

Environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society, said they trust that the full Ninth Circuit court would find the land exchange illegal under ANILCA. Karlin Itchoak, senior regional director of the Wilderness Society, did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Both sides now await a review of court briefs by two dozen judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as to whether they agree with the previous verdict.

“We don’t know for sure, but we still want to believe the judicial system will be fair,” King Cove City Manager Gary Hennigh said.

The land swap has since the 1990s had the support of Alaska’s congressional delegation, and the Biden administration to date has been in favor of the land swap, as was the Trump administration.

Environmental entities remain opposed to the road, contending that it would be detrimental to waterfowl, who stop to feed on eelgrass at the wildlife refuge.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has for years stated on its website that the Izembeck Lagoon is a wetland of international importance, as well as an excellent place to hunt waterfowl, including black brant, and duck species including eider, harlequin, Barrow’s goldeneye, mallard and pintail.

Several private firms provide hunting guides for such trips into Izembeck.