At this moment, the Alaska delegation on Capitol Hill is attempting to gain passage for another "Road to Nowhere" at the expense of a pristine area called Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. H.R. 2801 (introduced by Rep. Don Young) and S. 1680 (introduced by Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski) would build a $15.6 million, nine-mile gravel road through federally designated wilderness at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. And on Wednesday, it is expected that Dale Hall -- Bush's director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service -- will be the first head of the Service to offer support for the road in a House hearing on Capitol Hill.
In 1998, Congress -- with the support of the Clinton administration -- ruled against building a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which would have connected the small communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Instead, Congress passed the King Cove Health and Safety Act, which provided $37.5 million to upgrade King Cove's medical facilities, helped purchase a hovercraft to provide emergency medical service between the two towns, constructed new marine terminals, and built an unpaved road between King Cove and the connecting marine terminal. In addition, the law said that a road should never be built in federally protected wilderness at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Now the Alaska delegation believes the conditions are right to overturn that law, and in order to sweeten the deal, they have offered a trade. If Congress allows the removal of 206 acres from wilderness protection, the refuge will get approximately 61,000 acres of non-federal land added to the refuge. But the road would still run through the ecological heart of the protected wildlife habitat.
Why is Izembek NWR So Special?
Wilderness areas are not common in the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has only about 63 units (out of over 540 units) with federally designated wilderness. Izembek NWR is so pristine and valuable as a wildlife refuge, that almost all the acreage at Izembek NWR is designated wilderness.
In a July 23, 2007 article, the Washington Post described the area where the road would be built:
The heart of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is the Kinzarof and Izembek lagoons, which have been a strictly protected area since 1960. The two contain some of the world's largest beds of eelgrass -- a nutritious and fast-growing plant that feeds and shelters waterfowl, young fish, crabs and other small invertebrates that are favorite meals for the lagoon's regulars, including brown bears, wolverines and river otter.
"These are lagoons essential to a whole suite of waterfowl, and there's reason to think a road going through it could have serious and negative consequences," said Stan Senner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Alaska... Construction work could disrupt the fragile ecology, the road would bring more hunters into the area and pollution from cars and trucks could harm the eelgrass and the animals.
Izembek NWR is important bear habitat and supports almost the entire Pacific Flyway Brant population each spring and fall during migration. The refuge also protects tundra swans, emperor geese, Canada geese, dunlins, and the increasingly rare Stellar's eider ducks. Also found are caribou, sea otters, and Stellar sea lions. The value of the habitat is such that the Izembek Lagoon has been designated a "Wetlands of International Importance" by the Ramsar Convention and has been labeled a globally "Important Bird Area."
The groups attempting to stop this road include the The Wilderness Society, Audubon Society of Alaska, National Wildlife Refuge Association and Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges who have made it clear that they are against the project because it will offer the refuge marginal new land in exchange for building a road that they believe is not needed -- a road whose impact will extend well beyond the original construction and affect many of the very species that the refuge was meant to protect.
Does Alaska Need the Road?
The Alaska delegation claims that the hovercraft is currently unreliable and too expensive, and that they have had trouble attracting a doctor. But the National Wildlife Refuge Association reports that nine medical evacuations have successfully made the 20-minute hovercraft trip across the bay between the two communities, and points out that the proposed road will be equally difficult and expensive to maintain in an area known for avalanches and unstable volcanic soils.
Interestingly enough, the Washington Post raised a possible hidden reason for the community wanting the road:
Further complicating the equation is the presence of a large fish cannery in King Cove. Opponents of the road fear that it might someday want to truck salmon, salmon roe and king crab (as well as its many transient workers) to and from Cold Bay Airport.
The opponents worry that the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery, one of the largest in North America, is the hidden force behind the current push. That Peter Pan has been a timely campaign contributor to both sponsors of the bill, Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), adds to their concern.
But advocates of the road say that Peter Pan plays no role in their efforts, and that they are working only to give native people reliable access to emergency care. In an interview, Peter Pan manager Dale Schwarzmiller said the company has no plans to use the road if built, but he did not rule out the possibility of trucking fish to Cold Bay Airport in the future.
Declassifying federally designated wilderness is a dangerous path for Congress to pursue. Evan Hirsche, who is head of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, put it best when he said, "If this crucial portion of Izembek can't be protected as wilderness, then wilderness everywhere is threatened,"
Here is a graphic showing the members of the House Committee on Natural Resources along with their phone numbers. If your member is on this list, please call and leave a message tonight or call early tomorrow and let them know that you are against a road running through vital wilderness habitat at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The House hearing will be Wednesday afternoon.
Read The Wilderness Society fact sheet for more information.