Renewed optimism under Zinke’s Interior Department for King Cove
Proponents of a road from King Cove to Cold Bay feel renewed hope under discussions with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s administration for a different land swap than was proposed in the past.
King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said the application for the road is back before the U.S. Department of the Interior. Discussions involve setting up a federal lands appraisal process on 200 to 300 acres owned by the King Cove Corp. that could be swapped with the federal government for land to complete the road with an 11-mile connection through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to reach Cold Bay and its all-weather airport.
It’s a different day now. That’s what residents hoped when 82 out of 135 votes in King Cove were cast for President Donald Trump in the November 2016 election, said City Manager Gary Hennigh.
Under previous administrations since 1997, the community has struck out at attempts to gain the road. At issue is the wildlife refuge designation and its habitat for 98 percent of the Pacific black brant goose worldwide population, according to the Interior Department.
To show how much he’s hoping has changed, Hennigh recounts dealings with Zinke’s predecessor.
When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited King Cove on Aug. 10, 2013, Hennigh said he wanted to take a 10-minute detour to show off the city’s hydro project.
Delta Creek Hydro went online in 1994 and has saved the 900 residents of King Cove hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility costs. They pay 30 cents per kilowatt hour, a lot less than Sand Point’s 52 cents and Cold Bay’s 76 cents.
It’s clean and saves the city from burning 300,000 gallons of diesel a year.
But Jewell was on the ground in King Cove to see about the proposed road corridor from King Cove to the Cold Bay Airport. The people of this commercial fishing hub have fought for three decades to get a life-saving corridor — a modest one-lane gravel road — to link them to the airport at Cold Bay.
“She didn’t want to take the 10-15 minutes for us to show her Delta Creek, and let her know more about us,” Hennigh said. “She said she was there to ‘listen to the birds and animals, because ultimately, I’ve got to speak for them.’”
Hennigh and other city officials on the tour wanted to show Jewell that they care about wilderness, too. The road is for medical emergencies to the 10,000-foot civilian runway at Cold Bay built during World War II. During about100 days a year, the town sitting on the edge of the Alaska Peninsula is so snarled in storms that neither boats nor planes can make it.
“We’re proud of our renewable energy; I wanted her to give us the courtesy of 10 minutes so we could show we are a forward-thinking community,” the city manager said.
A few months later, Jewell rejected the proposed road on Dec. 23, 2013 on environmental grounds that it could negatively impact the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. In doing so, she rejected a proposed land swap approved in 2009 legislation signed by President Barack Obama that would have traded refuge lands for thousands of acres of state and private land. The trade would have given the federal government 97.5 square miles for less than 3 square miles of refuge.
Angered over Jewell’s decision, the Alaska congressional delegation fought back.
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, Sen. Lisa Murkowski included a provision in the 2016 fiscal year Interior budget that calls for the state and the Interior Department to negotiate a “fair trade” land exchange that would allow the state to build the road.
Then Rep. Don Young saw his legislation passed in July that approved the King Cove Land Exchange Act in a House vote of 248-179.
That’s where King Cove officials are now, in their discussions with Zinke’s staff.
“Certainly, in my 28 years as city manager, now it is as close to happening as it has ever been,” Hennigh said. “But there are still a lot of variables.”
In new land selections, the variables relate to analyzing and appraising different tracts to determine if it is of equal value.
“It’s difficult to determine because it is remote land,” Hennigh said. “The value of the King Cove Corp. land will be similar to the federal government land in the Izembek.”
The same road restrictions also would be kept. King Cove is a major commercial fishing port, processing seafood all but one month of the year at its only plant, owned by Peter Pan Seafoods. The road wouldn’t be used for commercial purposes and no hauling of commercial fish products between King Cove and Cold Bay would be allowed.
The 2013 environmental impact statement, or EIS, had five alternative land exchanges and road alignments considered. In order to not trigger the need for a new EIS, which takes years, King Cove officials, the Department of the Interior and the city are looking within those perimeters.
Another avenue sought to fight Jewell’s ruling — a lawsuit lost in U.S. District Court — was set aside just last month, Hennigh said.
The Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove had filed suit against Jewell in June 2014 arguing she chose the no-action alternative from the EIS. The State of Alaska then joined the suit on behalf of the Alaska Native group.
In September 2015, U.S. District Russell Holland ruled against the Tribe. He wrote in a 38-page opinion that Congress gave the Interior secretary the option to select the no-action alternative, and thus Jewell did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Given the sensitive nature of the portion of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge which the road would cross, the NEPA requirement for approval of the proposed road probably doomed the project,” Holland wrote.
Under NEPA, Jewell had evaluated environmental impacts, not public health and safety impacts, Holland wrote.
The Tribe appealed the ruling, Hennigh said.
“About a month ago, we decided to drop the lawsuit. Not because we got scared away, but we finally accepted the reality that if we prevailed in the lawsuit, the most the court would do would be to require a supplemental EIS or whole other EIS process,” Hennigh said. “The administrative agreement that we believe will now see the light of day is what we’re putting our confidence in now,” he added.
Just last week, CNN camera crews with reporter Drew Griffin were in King Cove. The main topic was the fight to gain the King Cove Road. But Hennigh, in his interview with the journalist, also took his time telling him about the microgrid hydro project that keeps the lights on in King Cove.
“He heard my spiel about renewables, about how it is the right thing for the environment and we have the oldest single remote microgrid in Alaska,” Hennigh said. “I told him the story about Interior Secretary Jewell, that we wanted her to know — that we want people to know — we aren’t completely obsessed with this road.”
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].