The saga has been going on for decades, and Wednesday evening, the dozen or so residents in D.C expected nothing more than a photo-op with Secretary Salazar.
They were pleasantly surprised Thursday morning.
“We’re closer now than we ever have been,” said Stanley Mack, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough.
By Mack’s count, he’s been fighting for a connector road from King Cove to Cold Bay for thirty years.
Standing outside the Interior Department Thursday morning, Mack called the meeting with Salazar excellent, saying he’s confident Secretary Salazar will reevaluate a Fish and Wildlife decision that blocked the land transfer.
It’s not certain he’ll reverse the decision. Mack called Salazar a hard negotiator, and even harder to read.
Della Trumble said Secretary Salazar needed to hear the human factor; that the environmental review had not taken lives into consideration.
She said she’s more optimistic now, if for no other reason, the meeting went longer than planned.
“We initially had half an hour meeting, but he did allow us a little over an hour,” she said. “And I feel, just optimistic, that hopefully he’ll take a closer look at this issue. He said he understands it a lot better from us being here.”
The Borough and city of King Cove paid for the trip to Washington.
The state would cede 41,000 acres, and the King Cove Corporation would cede 16,000 more. In exchange, they’d receive a 200 acre easement in the wildlife refuge. That easement would allow for the construction of a ten mile, one lane, gravel road.
Residents say they need it for emergency medical services; that flying in and out of King Cove is too dangerous and too often cancelled.
Trisha Trumble’s point, another King Cove resident in D.C., said weather in the Aleutians can change on a dime, making one flight safe, and the next dangerous. She recounted to Secretary Salazar the crash she survived in 2010.
“The pilot stated that we were coming in and getting ready for landing. We were going about 60, we hit an air pocket and it dropped, it made the whole plane drop, he looked at the speedometer and we’re going 120. He was lucky enough to bring it up and crash that plane perfectly on the runway which then turned sideways. We went down the runway sideways,” she said.
She drove the point home by stressing how close death was.
“And then there was fuel shooting out, and if we didn’t have a gravel runway and it was pavement, any spark would made the plane blow up.”
The residents would be allowed to use the road for everyday use, but it could not be used for commercial purposes. There would be a cable barrier preventing people from driving off road on ATV’s to hunt birds.
Nicole Whittington-Evans is the Alaska Regional Director for the Wilderness Society.
“A one lane gravel road with a 10, 15, maximum 20 miles per hour limit on it, from King Cove to Cold Bay will be approximately 35-40 miles, it’s going to take an hour and a half to two hours for a person to drive that road, in good weather,” she said by phone Thursday afternoon.
She said the federal government paid for a hovercraft that could take residents from King Cove to Cold Bay in twenty minutes. The Borough stopped operating the hovercraft in Cold Bay, and moved it to Akutan.
Mayor Stanley Mack said the hovercraft cost more than $1 million dollars per year, and it was unsafe in high seas and strong winds.
“The 1.2 million hovercraft was just the sporadic operation of the hovercraft. We could not operate it. It was costly and unreliable – totally,” he said.
The Department of Interior will not decide the fate of the road before Salazar’s 30 day public interest review deadline of March 18th. He could resolve the issue before the Senate confirms his successor, Sally Jewell.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, who supports the road, met with Ms. Jewell Wednesday morning, a normal part of the confirmation process. Senator Murkowski said she did not ask for any assurances on the land transfer.
“I want Secretary Salazar to do the right thing, plain and simple. I don’t think he should let this hang over and let … He needs to right this wrong that his agency has put forward. And I want him to correct that,” she said.
Even though she puts the onus on Secretary Salazar, Ms. Jewell could feel the punishment. If Secretary Salazar does not override the decision before stepping down, Senator Murkowski threatened to hold up the nomination of Ms. Jewell.
Parliamentary rules allow any Senator to stall any proceedings.
Della Trumble said even though she’s optimistic after the meeting with Secretary Salazar, she’s prepared to continue fighting.
“We’ve always maintained, before you make a decision on this, please, please talk to us,” she added. “And the other point is, we can send a plane load this large every week, because there are so many stories about why this road is so important.”
They’re unlikely to get another meeting with the Interior Secretary.