Senate legislation sets dangerous precedent with attack on Alaska’s Izembek wilderness

Photo: Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a globally significant refuge that teems with wildlife and birds. Glimpses of fox, caribou, bears and many species of birds are easily found. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS.

An assault on public lands has once again reared its ugly head in the form of a legislative “rider” in the U.S. Senate that would force the construction of an unnecessary road through designated wilderness in Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.                                       

The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed a bill that includes a policy provision that would override the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision against a proposed land swap and road project being sought by the community of King Cove, Alaska, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

An exhaustive scientific study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the road, and related land exchange, would damage the heart of globally significant wilderness and wildlife habitat, as well as subsistence resources on the Bering Sea coast. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell upheld that decision in December 2013.

“It is very disappointing that 50 years after passage of America’s landmark Wilderness Act, a spending bill is being used to bypass a sound, science- based decision by the Interior Department,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society.

Photo: Black brant fly over one of the refuge's lagoons. Izembek is a critical migration destination for almost all of the world's Pacific black brant. That's about 150,000 birds. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS.

King Cove wants the road for emergency access to an airport in the nearby community of Cold Bay. Taxpayers already financed a more cost-effective and efficient mode of emergency transport between King Cove and Cold Bay, with a $37.5 million appropriation in 1998 under the King Cove Health and Safety Act.

Although people on both sides of the issue respect the concerns of King Cove, the road is not a viable solution. Traveling the land route would take longer than other potential means of transport, and severe weather would often render the road impassable.

“Interior has studied this issue exhaustively, and repeatedly decided the road should not be built. It is not an effective solution to King Cove’s emergency transportation needs, and would be a chilling precedent that could endanger wilderness and wildlife across the nation,” said Whittington-Evans

Dr. Peter Mjos, former Eastern Aleutian Medical Director for the U.S. Public Health Service, told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 that during extreme weather involving “darkness, avalanche conditions, and ice-glazed roads, an attempt to travel the proposed road would be foolish beyond any reason, regardless the emergency or business. Any attempt to maintain the road for travel in such conditions would clearly jeopardize life.”

If Congress forced the road project over the objections of the Interior Department, it would set a chilling precedent by stripping public lands of their status as congressionally designated wilderness. America has never removed the protections of wilderness designation for the purpose of building a road.

The Wilderness Society, like other organizations that opposed the road proposal, believes that local residents deserve safe and reliable transportation options. As Secretary Jewell said during a visit to Alaska last summer, Izembek is not an issue of humans vs. wildlife. It’s about finding a solution that serves all needs.

Izembek is not an issue of humans vs. wildlife. It’s about finding a solution that serves all needs.

Photos; Western sandpiper are one of dozens of bird species that rely on the refuge. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS. 

Photo: Kinzarof Lagoon is one of two large lagoons on either side of a small strip of land where the proposed road would cut through. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS.

Izembek is home to a host of species from brown bears to caribou. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS.

 According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the entire world population of emperor geese migrates through Izembek Refuge in spring and fall. As of 2003, the population numbered at 70,000. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS.

Photo: Harbor seals at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo: Joshua Green area, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by Kristina Sowl, USFWS.

MAP: Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

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