King Cove and feds exploring options to build road without Congressional approval

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visits King Cove in 2013. (Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage)
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visits King Cove in 2013. (Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage)

The city of King Cove is working closely with the Trump administration to find a way to build a road to Cold Bay through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. But city leaders are taking issue with a recent Washington Post article that describes the administration attempting to conceal a behind-the-scenes deal to build the road.

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Gary Hennigh has been working for the City of King Cove for decades and he’s focused on making the road to Cold Bay a reality. He said the community needs the road to provide access to Cold Bay’s all weather airport, so people aren’t left stranded in medical emergencies.

Hennigh acknowledged that the Department of the Interior is working on an agreement to allow the road with the King Cove Corporation. But he said it isn’t a backroom deal.

“It’s not like we’ve said, ‘oh, let’s meet in a dark alley at some point late at night,’” Hennigh said.

When Donald Trump was elected president last November, Hennigh said community leaders representing the City of King Cove, the Aleutians East Borough, the King Cove Corporation, the Agdaagux Tribe and the Native Village of Belkofski immediately started discussing ways to reach out to the new administration. The conversation with the Interior Department got underway at the beginning of this year.

Like other proposals, this deal would involve swapping land, this time between the King Cove Corporation and the federal government. The Corporation would then own a land corridor where the road through the refuge could be built.

Other deals have included some element of Congressional approval. In 2013, after Congress directed then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to look into the road, Jewell rejected the idea saying it would irreversibly damage the Izembek Refuge and the wildlife that depend on it.

This time around Hennigh thinks the deal could avoid Congress entirely.

“We’ve come to be realistic, to know that the legislative world is a pretty big challenge,” Hennigh said. “If we don’t have to go there, we don’t want to. We want to see if that administrative agreement will work for us”

That administrative agreement Hennigh mentions would be between the Interior Department and the King Cove Corporation. As he understands it, Congress approved administrative power in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that could allow for land exchanges between the federal government and eligible Alaska Native Corporations. So there would be no need for additional congressional approval.

Hennigh is hopeful this approach will work. But environmentalists, like Nicole Whittington-Evans of The Wilderness Society, are angry.

After so many public processes that all concluded the King Cove Road would significantly impact wildlife in the Izembek Refuge, Whittington-Evans is frustrated it’s up for discussion again.

“The federal government has exhaustively studied this numerous times and always concluded the road would have significant impacts to the refuge and it’s wildlife, which the refuge was established to protect,” Whittington-Evans said.

Whittington-Evans believes because Congress decided the Izembek Refuge should be a designated wilderness area, the highest level of conservation given to federal lands, it’s only right that Congress would have to review any proposal to build a road.

“For an administration to come along now and ignore congressional action and disregard all the public input on this issue to now,  shows a brazen disregard for existing laws and our nations framework around public input,” Whittington-Evans said.

Whittington-Evans is worried the potential deal could undercut bedrock environmental laws like The Wilderness ActThe National Environmental Policy Act and ANILCA.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment. Alaska’s congressional delegation has advocated for a road to Cold Bay over the years. But if a deal is imminent, Senator Lisa Murkowski isn’t dropping any hints.

“Have you been hearing anything about it that was going to break this week?” Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin asked the Senator.

“I’ve been hoping that it would break months ago,” Murkowski said.

Hennigh also isn’t giving any indication of when a deal may become public. But he said the community is optimistic that a deal under this administration represents their best shot at the road in a very long time.

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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