Interior Secretary Deb Haaland says she’s still undecided on the proposed 11-mile gravel road that would link the Southwest Alaska village of King Cove with the nearby community of Cold Bay.
Haaland took a tour of the village Wednesday during her first visit to the state. At a news conference Thursday in Anchorage, Haaland said the trip was an opportunity to hear from the community first-hand.
“I know it’s been a decision that’s been in the atmosphere for the last three decades,” Haaland said. “I wanted to go to hear, to visit with the community, to see the geography and understand the challenges they face.”
A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe from New Mexico, Haaland is the first Indigenous person to lead the Interior Department.
The King Cove road has been discussed for decades. The predominately Aleut residents of King Cove, as well as Alaska state and federal lawmakers, have long pushed for the road. They say it’s a safety issue. The road would connect the village to Cold Bay’s all-weather airport and emergency flight services for evacuating patients. But the road would go through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which environmentalists oppose due to the potential impact on birds on those federal lands.
Haaland was in King Cove with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi and Gov. Mike Dunleavy. During her trip, she said, she heard from residents about the importance of the road due to various transportation and medical challenges. As of now, she said, she’s made no decision on the road project.
“I can say that I’m still in a learning process at the moment, and I don’t have anything else to announce today about that decision,” Haaland said.
In a statement from the Aleutians East Borough, which includes King Cove, village health care provider Bonita Babcock described the medical necessity of the road to Haaland.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” Babcock said. “We’re just asking for the federal government to care about our people enough to permit a dirt road across our ancestral land so that we can get our patients over to a medevac plane.”
Haaland has long championed environmental protection for federal lands. During her confirmation process last year, she committed to meeting with residents of King Cove to talk about the road project.
Last month, a federal court ruled in favor of a Trump-era decision to approve a land exchange between the federal government and King Cove’s village corporation that would allow for the road to proceed. The ruling reverses a 2020 federal court decision banning the exchange. President Biden’s administration defended the land exchange agreement last March.
The final decision on approving the exchange now rests with Haaland. She said the land agreement is pending legal review and a decision could come in the near future.