ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The federal government said Tuesday it rejected a plan to build a road through a wildlife refuge that would have given a small Aleut village in Alaska better access to medical care.
Villagers in remote King Cove had sought the one-lane gravel road for transporting emergency medical patients to an all-weather airport in Cold Pay, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will choose the "no action" alternative to a proposed land swap for a road corridor bisecting Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The decision is a victory for environmental groups that submitted thousands of public comments protesting the road. They said patients can be transported by boat and avoid the refuge on the Alaska Peninsula, a finger of land that stretches from mainland Alaska at the start of the Aleutian Islands.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, condemned the decision by the federal agency. King Cove's airport is frequently closed by high wind and foul weather, she said, and people have died trying to reach hospitals.
"This decision is unacceptable and reflects a wanton disregard for the lives of the Aleut people who have called the Aleutians home for thousands of years," Murkowski said.
In the past 30 years, a dozen deaths have been attributed to the lack of a road, including four people who in a 1981 airplane during an attempted medical evacuation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded a road could cause irrevocable damage to the refuge that protects the watershed of several large lagoons, including the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, which provides one of the world's largest beds of eelgrass for Pacific brant, endangered Steller's eiders and other migratory birds.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred alternative would protect the heart of a pristine landscape that Congress designated as wilderness and that serves as vital habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, shorebirds and waterfowl — including 98 percent of the world's population of Pacific black brant," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
The land exchange would have removed 206 acres from the refuge for the road and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak.
In return, the federal government would have received about 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation set up by federal law as part of Alaska's Native land claims settlement.
The decision against the road was made during an environmental review of the land exchange, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said.
"Congress charged the service with evaluating the environmental impacts of the land exchange and the proposed road," he said. "That's what we limited our analysis to."
The decision will be published Wednesday in the Federal Register and a final record of decision will follow in 30 days, he said.
"The habitat that would have been exchanged was not habitat that would have been unique with in the national wildlife refuge system," Woods said, adding it was a difficult decision.
Beth Peluso of Audubon Alaska praised the decision and said her group supports finding a marine option for moving medical patients.
The Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the proposed land exchange would not have offered comparable habitat for the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that use the refuge, she said.
"It would be a little bit like substituting a hardware store for a grocery store," she said. "The hardware store might be a little bit bigger, but you're not going to get what you need."
When planes cannot fly to King Cove, people transporting patients have tried making the trip by fishing boat but those vessels often are turned back by bad weather.
Congress in 1998 attempted to address the access problem with a $37.5 million appropriation that paid for a $9 million hovercraft to ferry villagers between the two communities. It was operated by the Aleutians East Borough until November 2011.
The vessel, however, cost more than $1 million a year to operate, a price the borough concluded it could not afford.
Woods said a landing craft might be an option. Murkowski, however, vowed to keep pushing for the road.
"If the environmental review process doesn't allow for valuing the health and safety of a community then it is irrevocably broken," she said.
She said Salazar is not bound by the finding of the environmental review.
"So far Secretary Salazar has refused to meet with the people of King Cove," the senator said. "It is imperative that he meet face to face with the people whose lives he is putting at risk before making a final decision. This fight is not over."