Jewell considers human safety, wildlife trade-off for Izembek Road

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has a difficult decision ahead of her.

She was in King Cove Friday to visit with residents about a road they want to build through the heart of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Residents say the road is necessary to access emergency medical treatment, but a road has never been built through a wilderness area and environmental groups say it would set a bad precedent.

When an emergency call wakes up Bonita Babcock in the middle of the night, one of the first things she does is check the weather:

“How bad is it blowing?,” she asks.

Secretary Sally Jewell visits the King Cove clinic

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Babcock is a lifelong resident of King Cove and a community health aide. It’s her job to help stabilize patients with traumatic injuries, heart attacks or other emergencies and get them ready to fly to the nearest hospital in Anchorage, 600 miles away.

“We’re looking and it’s like, most of the time, it’s going to have to be a medevac and we’re wondering what are we looking at here, what are we looking at?,” Babcock said. “Are they going to be able to get them out?”

About 30 percent of the time, the answer is no. High winds frequently shut down King Cove’s small gravel airstrip.

Cold Bay, 30 miles away, has an all-weather airport, but with no road between the communities, King Cove residents have to take a two-hour boat ride in choppy seas to reach Cold Bay when flying isn’t an option.

King Cove has been asking for a road for more than two decades, but Friday was their first chance to make their case directly to an Interior Secretary.

Babcock toured Sally Jewell around the King Cove Clinic. Jewell heard stories of medical close calls – like a baby who couldn’t breathe and had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. And she heard about the daily hardship of unreliable transportation out of or into the community.

Babcock told Jewell the clinic sometimes has to make do without essential medication.

Babcock: “Last week, six days it sat in Cold Bay you know, one of our patients meds.”

Jewell: “And there’s no boat running back and forth?”

Babcock: “The postmaster would have to go over by boat.”

Jewell: “I see.”

Babcock: “And she won’t. They’ve only done that maybe once and it was a mess.”

But the 11 mile one-lane gravel road that could make life safer in King Cove would also slice through the center of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Environmental groups say that would set a precedent that could make it easier to build roads through other wilderness areas.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, with The Wilderness Society says it’s an important sanctuary for bird species like the black brant and tundra swan.

“When you are in Izembek and you look around at the breathtaking coastal mountains and this incredibly vibrant and ecology rich area, you know this is a global resources we should be protecting,” Whittington-Evans said.

Whittington-Evans says the road would take more than two hours to drive and she’s skeptical it would be the fastest way to evacuate people with medical emergencies. And King Cove residents acknowledge the road isn’t just about health and safety; it would make it cheaper to fly to Anchorage, for instance, and high school sports teams could more reliably compete against other villages.

Secretary Jewell says she wants to find a solution that works both for the wildlife and the people of King Cove.

“I think that there have been efforts to talk about a tradeoff between human safety and wildlife and the reality is I think we want both so I understand the interests on both sides, it’s difficult and I don’t think that’s a reasonable tradeoff,” Jewell said. “I think we need to look for solutions that address both.”

Jewell hasn’t set a time line for making a decision. If she comes out in favor of the road, she’ll be going against the recommendation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But Etta Kuzakin, who is president of the Agdaadux Tribal Council in King Cove, is hopeful that’s what she’ll do.

“It’s easy to say no when you see it on writing on paper, but it’s not easy to say no when you see and you know and you look at the eyes of the people who have been through these tragic situations,” Kuzakin said.

Five months ago, Kuzakin went into premature labor in King Cove when the winds were howling. She made it out of the community later that day on a Coast Guard helicopter. She has a healthy daughter now named Sunny Ray but she worries about future emergencies that may not have a similarly happy ending.