Washington, D.C. – Alaska Congressman Don Young today led efforts in the U.S. House of Representatives to approve the passage of H.R. 218, the King Cove Road Land Exchange Act, legislation he’s spearheading with Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to facilitate a life-saving road for the isolated community of King Cove, Alaska. Met with opposition featuring dishonest and misleading arguments used in previous efforts to deny the life-saving road, the legislation passed with bipartisan support 248 to 179.
“This is truly an issue of life or death for the residents of the isolated community of King Cove,” Congressman Don Young following passage of H.R. 218. “For over 30 years, they have fought for the approval an 11-mile, non-commercial use, gravel road to the community of Cold Bay, AK in order to access an all-weather airport during medical emergencies. Sadly, this legislation is only necessary because of the heartless actions of the previous administration, which denied previous efforts by Congress to authorize the construction of this road. That decision, which placed the interests of environmentalists and wildlife over human life, was one of the worst government actions I’ve seen in all my years. I thank all those that stood by the people of King Cove to support the passage of this commonsense legislation. Without question, it will save lives. The people of King Cove have fought for over 30 years for safe and reliable access to emergency care and it’s past time we make it a reality. Frankly, I will not rest until we do.”
The Alaska delegation’s newest attempts to authorize the construction of the King Cove road comes following the December 2013 decision by then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to deny the construction of the 11-mile road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the community of King Cove has experienced more than 60 medivacs – including 17 by the U.S. Coast Guard – in often harsh weather conditions. The House-passage of H.R. 218 – legislation to authorize an equal value land exchange between the State of Alaska and the Department of Interior – represents the first time the House or Senate has approved such legislation since 2009.
Congressman Young speaking in favor of H.R. 218 on the House floor (click here to watch).
“This is an issue that should have been settled a long time ago,” said Congressman Young. “In 2009, this Congress passed a land exchange piece of legislation – very similar to this. We made one mistake, we did put into it the ability for the Fish and Wildlife to make recommendations – even then the recommendations were on the positive side. The last administration decided, under the Secretary of the Interior, not to build an 11-mile road to save my constituents – the Aleut people from King Cove – in favor of a goose. And the people who live in King Cove weren’t really considered… This does not harm to the refuge. It in fact saves lives, gives them an opportunity to take and experience medical care the rest of us all have. This is the right thing to do. Let’s not be caught into special interests saying it’s going to hurt the refuge.”
Fighting Back Amendments to Delay or Kill the Project:
Bill opponents, including those that have previously led efforts to deny the necessary land exchange, offered disingenuous and mischievous amendments to impede the future development and construction of the King Cove road. Those amendments, which sought reimbursement for previously appropriated federal dollars and the addition of language used by Secretary Jewell to previously reject the project, failed under the leadership of Congressman Don Young and House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop.
Congressman Young speaking against amendments to H.R. 218 (click here to watch)
“This is an amendment that’s mischievous in trying to defeat what we’re trying to do today. The amendment is wholly unnecessary to mitigate impacts on migratory birds in the Izembek Refuge…,” Young said in response to Rep. Niki Tsongas’ (D-MA) amendment. “It would allow, again, the Secretaries or one of the other Secretaries of a lesser part like Fish and Wildlife to delay the project. It’s an effort to delay the project.”
“This amendment would penalize the State of Alaska for Clinton Administration decisions by requiring the state to pay back grant money for a costly and often unreliable emergency hovercraft system,” Young said in opposition to Rep. Grijalva’s (D-AZ) amendment. “Residents of King Cove never wanted this system and only agreed to the compromise when it became clear the Clinton Administration would oppose any effort to authorize the construction of this life-saving road. After years of working in good-faith to make the solution work, King Cove had to abandon the system due to exorbitant costs and mechanical failures on the craft. This amendment puts a price tag on the safety of King Cove residents who have sought reliable access to medical care for decades… Furthermore, the amendment seeks repayment from the State of Alaska; however grant monies for temporary emergency relief efforts were largely awarded to local governments.”
Matter of Life or Death:
Since the heartless denial of the project in 2013 by then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, 65 medivacs have been conducted, 17 of which were by the U.S. Coast Guard at a cost of $210,000 per incident. Without access to reasonable or reliable emergency access, the residents of King Cove continue to fight for a road corridor to connect their town to Cold Bay – the home to an all-weather airport (closed an average of 10 days per year) featuring Alaska’s fifth-longest runway.
Congressman Young speaking on the human impact of H.R. 218 during rules consideration (click here to watch).
“This is an issue that means live. 19 people have died out of the community of King Cove. Mothers, children, husbands, uncles and aunts…,” said Congressman Young during the debate on the rule to consider H.R. 218. “Those that speak against it have never experienced the wind that howls through that area. When you try to land a plane and you crash, or take off with a sick person on board and you crash, or go across the bay when the waves are 30 feet high. Human beings – Alaskan constituents – that have medical aid 600 miles away but are stopped by 11 miles. It’s not allowed because supposedly there’s a better way. There is no better way than a road.”
Broad Support in Congress and Alaska:
The legislation is supported by the entire Alaskan Congressional delegation, Governor Bill Walker (I-AK), the residents of King Cove, Alaska, the Alaskan State Legislature, the Agdaagux Tribal Council and the National Congress of American Indians, among others. In addition, House debate featured a coalition assembled by Congressman Young to defend passage of H.R. 218.
“The people of Alaska who have engaged in this effort over the last three-plus decades have been rebuffed at every turn in which the only answer they got was the federal government giving them an alternative that flat out didn’t work. All of the efforts and anguish of these people in Alaska went to naught because a bureaucracy here decided they knew best, despite what the people of Alaska needed. [do] those of us sitting here 6,000 miles away really have the superior wisdom to tell those people living in King Cove how they should live their life? The simple solution is to build a road. The State of Alaska is giving up roughly 40,000 acres in exchange for 206 acres so the native Alaskan community can have access to medical care. This is the right this to do.”
“Mr. Speaker, this is shameful. Our citizens should not to wait hours for a medivac or brave treacherous seas while we sit here and debate this issue. No American should have to perish while we argue whether or not a refuge would be better off with miles of road… I urge my colleagues to think about the 19 Americans who perished for want of a gravel road.”
“For over 20 years, the people of King Cove have begged for this life-saving road for their safety. Not a major interstate, not a parkway, just a one lane road. It requires only 206 acres of the 59 million acres of designated federal Wilderness in Alaska.”
“H.R. 218 authorizes the commonsense land exchange between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of the Alaska that will save lives and tax payer money. The bill provides significant benefits for all parties, including tribal members, supporters of fish and wildlife, supporters of the environment, and supporters of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and most importantly the people living in the surrounding areas that need access to critical medical and healthcare services.”
H.R. 218, introduced by Congressman Don Young on January 3, 2017, authorizes an equal value land exchange to facilitate the construction of a road linking the City of King Cove and the City of Cold Bay. Under an equal value land exchange, up to 43,093 acres of non-federal lands owned by the State of Alaska could be transferred to the Department of the Interior (DOI) and added to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as designated Wilderness. In return, the State of Alaska will receive 206 acres of federal lands for the construction of an 11-mile, gravel, one-lane, non-commercial road segment that will connect existing roads on both sides of the refuge. The corridor would account for approximately 0.06 percent of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Currently, 131 acres of the proposed 206 acre project are designated as Wilderness.