Tall tales in Alaska— the truth behind a road, a community and protecting America’s wildlife refuges

Cold Bay near Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

flickr, James Brooks

The far end of the Alaska Peninsula, out near the spot where the mainland ends and the Aleutian Islands begin, is a remote place of beauty where life is lived on the edge, and tall tales take root.

The tiny community of Cold Bay is one of those places that has its own myth. At the edge of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, there is an unusually long airport runway in Cold Bay. A popular story holds that this isolated strip of pavement was an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.

Locals told me this when I visited Izembek years ago. To this day, a local corporation’s website boasts of Cold Bay’s alleged connection to America’s space program.

So, during a slow day at my previous job as a magazine editor, I called NASA and started asking questions. Nope, they said, Cold Bay was never on the list of alternative landing sites. The claim was a myth, but NASA got a good laugh out of it.

Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges. photo: Corey A. Anco, USFWS.

Nearby, across the body of water called Cold Bay and at the opposite end of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, the community of King Cove has its own tall tales.

Some of the people who live there want to bulldoze a road through the heart of Izembek and its designated wilderness. The Wilderness Society has worked for years to ensure protection for the refuge, which is home to bears, caribou, wolves and countless migratory birds.

This past December, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that after years of review by the agency, extensive scientific analysis, and rejection of the road twice by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the issue would be put to rest—the road, which would cost taxpayers more than $80 million, would not be in the public interest and will not be built.

Supporters of the road idea continue to tell some pretty tall tales in an attempt to undermine the expert opinions that have guided this important decision.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. photo: Kristine Sowl, USFWS.

They claim that the cost of operating a multi-million-dollar hovercraft -- purchased with federal tax dollars – was too expensive for transporting medical patients to Cold Bay’s airport. So they moved it to a new community and used it for years to haul mail and seafood-plant workers between two other communities while costing every bit as much as it did to provide emergency transportation. Without the hovercraft, medical patients in King Cove travel by aircraft, or sometimes on fishing vessels.

And despite the fact that medical evacuation flights have been done safely for nearly a quarter of a century, road proponents claim that people are being killed in plane crashes during medical evacuations. Exploiting long-ago incidents to spin the facts in a way that misleads the public and the media just isn’t right.

King Cove has other options. The borough has talked about a landing craft/ferry that could easily make the eight-mile trip to Cold Bay. And the Coast Guard has shown interest in establishing a more permanent base in Cold Bay, which could provide fast, efficient emergency services to King Cove and other communities in the region. Or the hovercraft could be returned to the service for which it was purchased.

It’s time for the public and our elected officials to look at the alternatives that will address the concerns of local residents while protecting Izembek’s wilderness.

And it’s time to talk about the facts, with no tall tales.