ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Thin barrier islands five miles off the tip of the Alaska Peninsula shelter Izembek Lagoon from the Bering Sea, but it's what's beneath the surface that makes the lagoon special and part of a brewing, cross-continent fight.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pushing for a road between King Cove, population 938, where flying is often impossible, and Cold Bay, home to an airport that can operate in almost any weather. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week rejected a land swap that would have allowed the road to be built through the refuge, skirting the lagoon.
Murkowski and her allies say a road would be safer than what's happening now. Local residents of King Cove have died trying to fly to Cold Bay and a hospital in Anchorage. Murkowski isn't backing down, and has threatened to block President Obama's choice to head the Interior Department, Sally Jewell, unless the administration agrees to a land exchange that will lead to construction of a road.
"I'd like to think that I'm not going to have to use that tool, but it's available to me and I am going to do everything that I can within my power as a United States senator to make sure that the safety of the people in the King Cove/Cold Bay region is not compromised," she said.
The political battle is far from the peaceful heart of the lagoon, where the world's largest known bed of eelgrass grows upward in green ribbons from the shallow ocean bottom. Every fall, the eelgrass provides a buffet for millions of geese and other waterfowl as they leave Alaska or Russia for warmer climates.
Almost the entire population of Pacific brant descends on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, foraging a mile or so offshore. The small sea geese watch for bald eagles launching attacks from bluffs. Endangered Steller's eiders feed on tiny invertebrates. Tundra swans, emperor geese and countless shorebirds make appearances.
Murkowski, generally an advocate for environmental issues, has argued that people should come first in this particular case.
Coast Guard helicopter crews answered five emergency calls in King Cove last year. Murkowski said they regard the King Cove airport as the most dangerous in the state. A 1981 crash out of King Cove killed a pilot, a nurse practitioner, a health aide and a crab fisherman who was being evacuated because his foot had been severed. Treacherous weather conditions have doomed other flights, including six in a 1982 crash on a flight from Kodiak to King Cove.
Debate over environmental values versus human life at Izembek has been going on since most of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge was designated as wilderness in 1980. King Cove residents say they were not consulted before their access was restricted.
Residents seeking a road in 1998 received a sympathetic reception in Washington, D.C., but left with a consolation prize. Congress appropriated $37.5 million to upgrade medical facilities and a spend $9 million on a hovercraft.
Icing and big waves often kept the hovercraft in port, said Aleutians East Borough Administrator Rick Gifford. At $73 for a one-way ticket, the projected revenue never materialized. The boat turned into a $1 million annual drain on the budget and the borough ended service in November 2011. It was transferred to another city within the borough.
With the hovercraft out of the picture, King Cove officials renewed their call for a road. With the backing of the state and an Alaska Native corporation, they made an offer they thought the federal government could not refuse: 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp. for a 10-mile corridor through the refuge and acreage from another federal refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Salazar concluded the additional acreage could not match the quality of habitat at Izembek and would disrupt the birds.
Salazar will meet Thursday with King Cove residents, and he could change his mind. But Noah Matson, vice president for landscape conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, said Salazar made the right call for now and for future generations. He believes the 1998 compromise for a marine route was the best answer because it protected internationally recognized wetlands, he said.
"The hovercraft successfully transported, safely, many people from King Cove to Cold Bay," he said.
The proposed road would run along what's essentially a fjord, he said, with avalanche danger and erosion potential for the bay. The same wicked winds that ground airplanes and hovercraft will render a road impassible with snow drifts, he said, and make the road as expensive to maintain as the hovercraft.
Salazar likely took seriously his responsibility to balance the needs of the people of King Cove with protection for the refuge, Matson said, and Murkowski's threat to put a hold on Salazar's replacement is not appropriate.
"It's unfortunate that she's politicizing this issue," he said.