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The Environmental Fight Putting Lives at Risk in Alaska’s Perilous King Cove

Activists put birds above largely Native American population that needs road out of town

The village of Newtok is seen from a plane on June 29, 2015, in Newtok, Alaska. / Getty Images
• March 5, 2022 4:59 am

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Life in the Alaska town of King Cove can get perilous. For almost a third of the year, flying in and out of the town just isn't possible—its small gravel airstrip is unable to accommodate large aircraft, and the whipping winds and severe weather of the Aleutian Islands make it a challenge for anything smaller to operate safely.

King Cove is a small town of about a thousand inhabitants, mostly Native Americans. It's natural isolation comes into focus most often when medical emergencies arise—the town itself lacks proper medical facilities. For almost any significant medical issue, residents need to head to a hospital in Anchorage, more than 600 miles away.

Getting to the hospital means a battle against dangerous, life-threatening conditions, and the people of King Cove all have an evacuation story to tell. A small, single-engine plane tries to land, nearly crashing with a pregnant young woman onboard. An Alaskan Native Elder is hauled up in a crab pot to a large fishing boat, the only way to cross the dangerous bay with high waves and winds. A man dies of cardiac arrest while struggling up a precarious dock's ladder, trying to reach a safe airstrip.

According to King Cove officials Gary Hennigh and Della Trumble, there have been more than 160 aerial medevacs of residents by the Coast Guard since 2013. It was Trumble's pregnant daughter aboard the single-engine plane.

"When I watched my daughter's airplane crash land into a field in 2012, while fortunately no one was injured, it was the most frightening thing in my life," Trumble said. "These things shouldn't have to happen. But it continues and continues to happen."

The safest way out is to make it to Cold Bay, the nearby site of an extremely safe, rarely closed airport. Built in World War II, Cold Bay's airstrip is one of the longest in Alaska, and more than capable of handling the large aircraft that would let the people of King Cove get to medical treatment safely. But there is no land route from King Cove to Cold Bay, and like with air travel, the sea route is only navigable for large ships that can handle the rough water.

The federal government once offered a solution to the problem, but it ended up doing more to demonstrate government waste and inefficiency than help the people of King Cove.

The Clinton administration purchased the community a hovercraft that (a) could not work in high winds, (b) was hideously expensive, and (c) its own ancillary support facilities were destroyed by the same high winds. Ultimately, after both King Cove and another Alaska town tried and failed to use the hovercraft, it was sold to an oil company in Kazakhstan for a loss of about $4.6 million.

There is an easier solution. A road is being built from King Cove to Cold Bay, and it's only 11 miles away from completion. Those 11 miles, however, sit on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Despite pleas from the people of King Cove, advocacy from Alaska's congressional delegation, and efforts by the Trump administration, environmentalists have managed to halt the land transfer needed to finish the road.

Since 1998, when the town first offered a land transfer deal to the government, its offer has grown only more and more generous. King Cove is asking for 200 acres of land in order to finish their road, and originally offered 600 in return. In 2005, the state of Alaska offered 4,000, and then offered 41,000 the next year. The final deal offered more than 50,000 acres of state-owned and tribal land to the federal government in exchange for that crucial 200, with most of that land becoming a federal wildlife refuge.

Environmentalists, despite their often-professed interest in racial justice, have rejected each offer, sacrificing the safety of this mostly Native American population to protect birds.

During the Obama administration, a grueling environmental review led to then-secretary of the interior Sally Jewell deciding that possible harm to birds in the Izembek Refuge was more important than any potential harm to human beings. The refuge remains open for hunting, though, which leads one to ask just what the administration considered to be harmful. The land transfer never happened.

The Trump administration attempted to change course. Former secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke approved a land transfer through the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, which explicitly provided for transfers between Native American groups like King Cove and the federal government. It was immediately challenged in wave after wave of lawsuits by environmental groups in the Ninth Circuit.

Litigation continues to hold up the construction of King Cove's road. While the Biden administration's Justice Department and Interior Department continue Trump-era appeals of the Ninth Circuit's ruling, it's noticeable that the Biden-era Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded permits for crucial survey work for the road issued under Trump. Even Ninth Circuit judge Eric Miller, appointed under Trump, noted "that one morning we could learn that [Biden interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland has reached a different decision and this case is moot."

Opponents of the road argue that the humanitarian argument for its construction is a deception. Instead, they claim that Peter Pan Seafoods, a salmon cannery based in King Cove, is simply hoping to "gain a cheaper overland route for transporting fresh product to Cold Bay for export."

Peter Pan calls the accusation "deceitful and cynical."

For almost a decade now, Peter Pan Seafoods has rejected the claim that they want the road to transport fish. The company points out that the land transfer, which the Obama administration decided against, would bar the use of the road for commercial purposes. Their interest in the road, they say, is that their employees get sick and deserve medical care as well.

The proposed road is one lane, made of gravel. Peter Pan has large tramper ships that can either move fish directly to Cold Bay or straight to Asia. Even if they weren't barred by law, the company wouldn't consider using the King Cove road to transport their product, given the much higher cost.

The chances of the Biden administration taking action on behalf of King Cove appear to be dwindling. While Haaland promised to go and visit the town and make a decision for herself, she promised to do so "within the year," last year. The Interior Department maintains that Haaland will visit soon. Still, it's hard not to see this as a tacit surrender by the Biden administration to liberal environmental groups.

"We're very frustrated," Hennigh said. "We've talked and shown time and time again, but the federal government, for whatever reason, has chosen to simply ignore what the folks of King Cove had to say."