Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, along with residents of King Cove, Alaska, are continuing their fight today to put a road through the wilderness of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, but they aren’t telling Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar all the facts.
The Interior Department recently ruled that a land swap and road proposal would not be in the public interest, and would harm important and sensitive wildlife habitat in Izembek. Proponents of the road argue that it would save the lives of local residents needing emergency medical care. The facts tell a different story.
“We are sensitive to the needs of King Cove residents,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. “But a road would not improve their access to emergency medical care. It would be a costly boondoggle for taxpayers, who already have paid millions of dollars to upgrade local medical facilities and purchase a state-of-the-art hovercraft that operates in most weather, and can carry an ambulance with a full crew. The Wilderness Society has always been in favor of use of the hovercraft, and funding for it. A road simply isn’t needed.”
- The Aleutians East Borough took the hovercraft out of service in 2010, citing operational costs of $1 million per year. The vessel was transferred to the community of Akutan to transport passengers and mail, also at a cost of $1 million per year. According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates, the road would cost at least $22 million to construct, and $1 million per year to maintain. The Wilderness Society – which commissioned an economic study of the road proposal – believes this estimate of road costs is low. Our study suggests the road would cost taxpayers seven to 13 times more than the overall benefits.
- Road proponents claim that patients have died because no road connects King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay, but every death they cite occurred prior to the hovercraft being put in service. The hazards of traveling by road during dangerous weather could actually cost lives.
- During its service, the hovercraft performed more than 30 medical evacuations in almost all weather conditions. It travels between the communities in about 20 minutes, while driving on the proposed road – if it could be kept open during winter storms, which is unlikely – would take more than 90 minutes.
“Taxpayers funded a multi-million-dollar vessel that provided local residents reliable and efficient access to medical evacuations,” Whittington-Evans said. “The borough complained that it was too costly, and then moved it to a new community where it operates at the same level of expense. When road proponents say a road would save lives, the numbers just don’t add up. They don’t have facts on their side.”