King Cove Renews Hope for Approval of Medical Access Road

Alaska Peninsula
A map of the Alaska Peninsula, including the village of King Cove. Image via Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Residents of the Alaska Peninsula fishing community of King Cove say they’re hopeful that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will visit their community on Alaska’s Aleutian Chain and remove barriers to completing a one-lane gravel road to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay.

King Cove is the home of Peter Pan Seafood’s largest facility, a year-round seafood plant, processing king, bairdi and opilio tanner crab, Alaska Pollock, Pacific cod, salmon, halibut and black cod delivered from fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The plant has the largest salmon canning capacity of any plant in Alaska. At peak season there are some 500 employees working there.

Over the past eight years, for lack of a road to Cold Bay, there have been 157 medevacs, many of them by the U.S. Coast Guard in dangerous weather conditions. When weather makes air medevacs too dangerous, the only alternative for emergency medical cases is a three-hour boat ride from King Cove to Cold Bay

A number of environmental entities oppose completion of the road because it would require connecting two existing roads on either side through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. They contend that the road would have adverse impact on food sources, including eelgrass, for migrating waterfowl who use the refuge as breeding grounds and to rest on their long annual journeys.

Two days before Christmas in 2013, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced she would not allow the road, which had been approved on a bipartisan basis in Congress, conditioned on a public interest determination to connect two existing roads on either side of Izembek.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in 2013 that a road through the refuge could cause irrevocable damage to the watershed; Jewell agreed, finding that a land exchange could not compensate for the special qualities of existing wildlife refuge lands.

Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promotes hunting waterfowl in Izembek, particularly for waterfowl and brown bear, for hunters accessing the refuge from Cold Bay.

According to the USFWS website, “fall waterfowl hunting is spectacular” for Canada geese and black brant, ptarmigan and more.

In January 2018, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a land trade agreement that would allow the road to be built. Nine environmental groups went to court to challenge that agreement.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage ruled against Zinke, saying that the project would have reversed previous policy without explanation.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a proponent of the road, said Jewell “made a horrible decision eight years ago and it is the good people of King Cove who have paid the price ever since.” She reiterated her request to Haaland, who has prioritized tribal consultation, to visit King Cove and address the road issue, for the protection of local residents.

“It is simply unconscionable that the federal government has failed to protect these Alaskans’ health and safety, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has made emergency medical access all the more critical,” she said.