Interior stalls aerial survey in Izembek Refuge, says Murkowski

An aerial view of King Cove. (Aleutians East Borough)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the Interior Department is holding up aerial survey work that would advance a road in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Murkowski raised the thorny issue of the King Cove road at a hearing Tuesday with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

“Your department was working with the state. They were working with us for six months to shepherd these permits,” Murkowski said. “And not once was there any indication — any indication — that these permits would not be issued, or that there was a problem for the basis of the permits.”

Haaland said she would find out more and respond to the senator.

Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Andy Mills said its contractor is waiting for special-use permits to mark wetlands and identify cultural resources with the aid of a helicopter. DOT has already completed a survey of a bridge site for the proposed road, he said.

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Murkowski said all seemed fine until early July. Then, she said, Interior decided to withdraw a memo, issued in the final days of the Trump administration, providing legal basis for granting the permits.

“So now the department is shifting this whole process for these permits by telling the state that Fish and Wildlife now needs to do a refuge compatibility analysis and a minimum requirements analysis which may require public comment and review,” Murkowski said at the hearing.

A road through a portion of the Izembek refuge was first proposed decades ago. Conservation groups fiercely oppose it, saying the area is important to migrating waterfowl and other wildlife. The residents of King Cove say the road would save lives by giving them access to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay. 

Under the Trump administration, Interior initiated a land trade for the road corridor. A lawsuit over that process is now pending in a federal appeals court. 

Haaland pledged to visit with King Cove residents before taking further action. The visit is expected in September.

RELATED: Interior Department Secretary to visit King Cove amid road dispute

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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