Vote Explanation for H.R. 218 — King Cove Road Land Exchange Act

Grizzly bear and her cub in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

I voted against H.R. 218, the King Cove Road Land Exchange Act, which would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to provide 206 acres of federal land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Alaska. The land conveyed to Alaska would be used to facilitate the construction of an 11-mile gravel road to connect the town of King Cove with Cold Bay, which is located on the other side of the Izembek Refuge.

Izembek Wildlife Refuge is a is a globally recognized wetland and coastal habitat for iconic wildlife, including brown bears, caribou, salmon and hundreds of species of migratory birds. The Refuge is one of the first wetland areas in the United States to be designated a “Wetland of International Importance.”

In 1998, the federal government allocated over $37 million to upgrade access to quality medical care for the people living in King Cove, and then paid an additional $13 million in support of that commitment. King Cove subsequently elected to voluntarily give away the state-of-the-art $9 million hovercraft ambulance that was purchased, which successfully performed every medical evacuation to Cold Bay while in operation.

A decade later, Congress then authorized this land exchange, but required a study to determine whether the construction of a road was in the public interest. After a transparent, four-year review, the Obama Administration determined the project was not. During the review, FWS held over 130 meetings and analyzed thousands of public comments — 70,111 of the 71,960 (97.4%) public comments were opposed to construction of the road.

Proponents of the legislation argue King Cove is especially remote and is accessible only through its harbor and a gravel airstrip, which become regularly inaccessible during the winter. The new road would provide access to the airport near Cold Bay and allow for emergency evacuations from King Cove.

Opponents argue that in addition to the environmental impacts road construction would have, the severe winter storms that occur in the area would make travel by road an unviable option. Eastern Aleutian Medical Director for the U.S. Public Health Service told FWS in 2012:

“These hurricane-force storms are not infrequent, of course. No vehicle, boat or plane or medevac can even consider travel in such horrific conditions. Combined with darkness, avalanche conditions, and ice-glazed roads, an attempt to travel the proposed road would be foolish beyond any reason, regardless the emergency or business. Any attempt to maintain the road for travel in such conditions would clearly jeopardize life.”

It is also important to note that viable transportation alternatives exist — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published a report in 2015 outlining “non-road alternatives” for transportation between King Cove and Cold Bay. Such alternatives include an ice-capable marine vessel, construction of a new airport and the addition of a heliport.