Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday morning signed a land swap deal to allow a tiny Alaska village to build a road through the federally protected Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which residents say will provide a route for medical evacuations to the closest regional airport.
Zinke, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and members of the state’s congressional delegation announced the deal in a ceremony Monday in the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The deal is a big win for Murkowski, who also succeeded recently in leading Congress to allow oil and natural gas drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, a separate federally protected area that had been off limits for energy exploration.
"For 30 years, the people of King Cove have been trying to get a simple road to connect them to safety when it comes to air transport out of the region," Murkowski said at the Monday press conference. "Anywhere else in the United States of America, a non-commercial use, one-lane ought to be easy. The reality was it was not easy, often because of the politics, and sometimes, the personalities. But the personalities that persisted were the ones from King Cove who knew that it was the right thing to do."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and all but 15,000 of its 315,000 acres have been designated as wilderness since 1980, prohibiting motorized vehicle access.
King Cove, a village with roughly 925 residents, has lobbied the Interior Department for decades to build a 12-mile, single-lane gravel road to connect to the neighboring town of Cold Bay.
King Cove is in the Aleutian Islands between two massive volcanic mountains on the edge of a bay off the Pacific Ocean. There are no roads connecting King Cove to any other Alaskan city, and the nearest medical facilities are in Anchorage, about 625 miles northeast.
That means King Cove residents with medical emergencies must fly to Cold Bay and then to Anchorage for treatment. Flights can be delayed hours or even days by bad weather.
Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will transfer up to 500 acres to King Cove. The road will have to be "primarily" used for non-commercial purposes.
In 2013, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the road would harm the birds and animals in the refuge. She rejected a land swap that would have sent 61,000 acres of state and native lands to the federal government in exchange for 207 acres of the refuge to be made available for the road.
Zinke said the Trump administration took a different approach to evaluating the issue.
"This is important because it not only represents the right thing to do, but for Alaska it represents the ability for Alaskans to have a voice," Zinke said at Monday's press conference. "State voices matter, local communities matter and this is a symbol of this administration that local voices matter. I would suggest no one knows more about environmental issues than the citizens of King Cove."
Zinke said the road is still subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental permitting reviews.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, suggested Zinke's action would be challenged in court.
Grijalva said the King Cove agreement is representative of a partisan agenda to undermine the Obama administration.
"When it’s time to make actual policy, his [Zinke's] only instinct is to do the clumsiest version of the opposite of what President Obama did, as he did again today," Grijalva said. "His biggest decisions are likely to be overturned in court, his employees’ morale is widely known to be ‘in the toilet,’ and he counts building a road through a wilderness area to be a meaningful accomplishment. This is not government by science and careful analysis – this is government by personal whim and a need to attack the Obama administration regardless of the consequences."