From Erika Bolstad in Washington D.C. --
The House of Representatives this afternoon passed a sweeping public lands bill that will allow planning to begin for a 25-mile gravel road through a wildlife refuge in a remote community on the Alaska Peninsula.
The proposed road, which cuts through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, is just one of hundreds of projects in the 1,218-page bill. The legislation also authorizes water projects on Indian reservations, declares some rivers as wild and scenic and designates 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states. The legislation, widely lauded by conservation groups, goes next to President Barack Obama for his signature.
In Alaska, the bill authorizes a land swap that gives the
state an easement through the wildlife refuge. The easement would allow the state to build a road from the community of King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay -- pending federal environmental approval. The environmental review will be sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who must find there is a public purpose to the road for it to be built.
The community of King Cove has sought the road for the past decade as an alternative to the hovercraft residents use to travel across the bay to get to the airport in Cold Bay. The World War II-era airport in Cold Bay is home to the third-longest runway in the state; unlike the smaller King Cove airport, it stays open in all weather conditions. King Cove residents have said they're concerned about the ongoing operating costs of the hovercraft as well as its reliability for medical evacuations.
In exchange for the easement through the refuge, the state is expected to transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government. Much of that land would go to the Izembek refuge; part would be designated as wilderness.
Conservationists have countered that the refuge is one of the most valuable bird sanctuaries in the world, and that allowing a road through a designated wilderness area sets a bad precedent for future decisions about wildlife refuges across the country. They are expected to object to the road as it goes through its environmental review.