When the late Sen. Ted Stevens was gearing up for a fight, he wore a tie with images of the Incredible Hulk. In a Senate hearing on Wednesday where she confronted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Sen. Lisa Murkowski channeled Stevens by wearing an Incredible Hulk scarf. In the audience were members of the community of King Cove, a village of about 900 on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. They traveled roughly 4,000 miles to petition their government.
The fight, which has Murkowski and her staff as passionate and committed as I have ever seen them, is over 11 miles of a potentially life-saving gravel road from King Cove to Cold Bay. Cold Bay has an all-weather airport. King Cove does not. When the residents of King Cove need serious medical care, they call the Coast Guard, which picks them up and takes them to Cold Bay, in all kinds of dangerous weather. So far this year, the Coast Guard has been dispatched to the village seven times. Watch the video of one of those dispatches here to see what that’s like.
The 11 miles cut through a piece of the Izembek National Wildlife Reserve, a stop-over for migrating birds who feed on the grasses there. Ironically, the feds say that bird-hunting opportunities in the reserve are “world famous.”
A land swap was proposed and rejected. The refuge covers 300,000 acres, and the community and the state were offering to add 61,000 more in exchange for the road. The road is 206 acres. On Dec. 23, Jewell refused the deal .
For two decades King Cove residents have asked for permission to build the road on a piece of land that their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years. A frustrated Stevens was able to broker a compromise. In 2007, the community got a hovercraft to transport residents between the two communities. The problem? Weather kept the hovercraft from operating most of the time, and cost about $3 million a year. For years, the hovercraft lay abandoned.
Environmentalists are worried about the precedent. They are staunchly against the road, and have dispatched bloggers and editorial writers across the country to write that the struggle for the road has more to do with a fish processing business than the safety of the residents of King Cove.
“But despite pledges and promises to the contrary, the real purpose for building the road is the same as it ever was: moving fish and workers to and from King Cove’s canneries,” wrote former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt earlier this month. Babbitt himself said no to the road.
That the legislation which would authorize the road would forbid commercial use of it doesn’t appear to matter.
Nor, apparently, do the residents of King Cove, or the safety of the Coast Guard members.
Sen. Mark Begich, it should be noted, has also been fighting for the road, but not with nearly the tenacity of Murkowski.
She and the community will win on this, eventually, because they’ve got right on their side.
And in the process, the environmentalists who have demagogued this issue at the expense of real lives will have lost allies across the state, and perhaps across the country. Including this one.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org