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We, all of us, have had to put off flights from Ketchikan because of weather, or tried to get into (or out of) Juneau, but the plane just couldn’t land for that very reason. It is an inconvenience, but we always take it philosophically, understanding that if the experienced and capable Alaska Airlines pilot doesn’t want to go there, we don’t want to go there, either.
But if we are sick, in Ketchikan or Juneau, we have a hospital to drive to. We can get the care we urgently need.
Not so in King Cove, an Aleut fishing village.
The people of that village have been working for years to get a “road” — one lane of gravel — to Cold Bay, which has an airport affording access to emergency medical care. We are not talking about a freeway here, or a potential Cold Bay rush hour scenario: The road would enable an ambulance to get out of King Cove and into Cold Bay, where a gravely ill or injured person could be medevaced from the airport.
The feds, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s “no action” alternative, have decided that the land (land for which it would get, in exchange for 1,800 acres, 56,400 acres of land from the Aleut people and the State of Alaska) mustn’t have that single lane of gravel to save people’s lives. The exchange, according to The Associated Press, would have removed 206 acres from the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for the road and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak.
The live-saving thing is not hyperbole, by the way: More than a dozen people have died because their need for health care was so desperate that flights were attempted despite the weather.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski described the decision by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to nix the exchange that would have enabled the road to be built aptly as “deciding that theoretical small impacts to a tiny sliver of a refuge override health and safety issues for real human beings.” All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, and Gov. Sean Parnell, derided the decision.
Environmentalists urged getting to Cold Bay by water instead of across land, another dicey and unreliable method for dealing with medical emergencies.
The King Cove City Administrator, Gary Hennigh, gave the local point of view after hearing the decision to just leave things as they are. “To us, it simply says that the government believes the Aleut people matter less to them than the tundra swan and the black brant.”
Well put, and shameful.
Salazar, and REI executive Sally Jewell, who will take over as interior secretary in March if she is confirmed by the Senate, don’t have to accept Fish and Wildlife’s decision on the matter, and they should not. Sen. Murkowksi has issued a challenge to look the people of King Cove in the eye and see their situation before making a final decision.
They should take her up on it.