The Trump administration just decided to allow a remote Alaskan town to build a road through federally protected lands, ending a three-decade-long battle over the project.
The village of King Cove doesn’t have a hospital, and according to locals, building a road to the closest regional airport in Cold Bay could save lives. Conservationists, however, worry that allowing construction through protected land sets a dangerous precedent that could open other wilderness to development.
Regardless of the split, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke signed an agreement on Monday with Alaska Native tribes allowing them to build an evacuation road through the massive Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which has been a federal wilderness since 1980, the highest designation of U.S. land protection.
"Above all, the federal government's job is to keep our people safe and respect our treaty commitments with Native Americans and Alaska Natives,” Zinke said in a statement. "Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that's just wrong.”
Residents of the village, which sits among the string of islands jutting off southwestern Alaska, have been pushing for a road for more than 30 years. The area lacks its own hospital, and inclement weather can stop planes and boats from transporting patients. That caused 18 people to die in the years from 1980 to 2003, King Cove Mayor Henry Mack told CNN.
Environmentalists, however, have criticized the move and said that building a road through even a small slice of Izembek’s pristine 315,000 acres would be an unprecedented legal move on protected land. Federal law essentially bars all road construction and motorized-vehicle use on federal wilderness land.
A road could also disrupt the refuge’s role as a key migration route and habitat for birds, caribou, and bears. Meanwhile, federal analyses of the project have endorsed alternative solutions.
“Sadly, the Trump administration is charging ahead with the effort to build an unnecessary road through this extraordinary wilderness area — regardless of the damage it would cause to Izembek’s globally significant wildlife habitat,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society, told the Washington Post.
The group plans to challenge the move in court.
Cover image: This Sept. 23, 2013, photo shows a driver passing the small boat harbor in King Cove, Alaska. (AP Photo/Kodiak Daily Mirror, James Brooks)