JUNEAU, Alaska A remote fishing village in Alaska's Aleutian Islands chain that is inaccessible by land has become the site of a high profile fight pitting the U.S. Interior Secretary against community leaders, state lawmakers and members of Congress.
The issue: Whether to build a 10-mile gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to link the coastal community of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay and, with that, provide access to emergency healthcare.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell denied the road in December, putting a stop to a plan approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama. She cited the potential for "irreversible damage" to wildlife that depend on the refuge, a significant habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl, including the Pacific black brant.
Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has carried out five emergency rescues by helicopter - all within a seven-week window and under extreme weather conditions - to people needing medical help in King Cove. No roads lead in or out of the tiny village of nearly 1,000 people, with the only access by air or sea.
The rescues have touched off the ire of road supporters, who say those needing help could be better and more safely served by a road, and who accuse Jewell of favoring wildlife over human well-being.
Especially angry is U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, who has called Jewell's December 23 decision heartless, callous, cold-hearted and wrong-headed on separate occasions.
"What they are asking for is so simple, so basic and yet it's being denied because of a decision putting waterfowl over humans," Murkowski told Reuters. "It's not right. This decision just cannot be allowed to stand."
Last month, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell served a federally mandated, 180-day notice that he intends sue the Interior Department over a decision he called unconscionable.
"Serious health-related evacuations have shown just how critical a road for medical evacuations is for residents," Parnell said in a statement.
One of those evacuations took place on Valentine's Day, when King Cove fire chief Chris Babcock's plans to cook dinner for his wife, Bonita, changed the minute she arrived home.
"We're going to have to medevac a patient," Bonita Babcock, a community health aide for King Cove Clinic, recalled telling her husband. "We need to get to the airport. The Coast Guard will be here soon."
ROUGH WEATHER CONDITIONS
As the fire chief for this village - remote even by Alaska metrics - Chris Babcock has done nearly 20 years worth of emergency medical evacuations. But none like this.
Wind gusts hit 60 mph. Snow reduced visibility so much that both heard chopper blades long before they saw a Coast Guard chopper slowly come into view.
"We need a road. It's that simple," Chris Babcock told Reuters. "We just feel like birds are (treated as) more important that humans."
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society, said the evacuations illustrate a need for action but disagreed that a road was the solution.
"The road threatens habitat while not necessarily guaranteeing safety to the people of King Cove and Cold Bay," she said. "Even if it were built, it's not even clear that a road would have been passable that day."
Jewell pledged to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee and the House Natural Resources Committee earlier this year to work on a solution.
"She is committed to continuing to work with the community to explore viable alternatives that provide for the health and safety of the King Cove community," an Interior official said in an emailed statement, declining further comment.
One option includes an enhanced Coast Guard presence at Cold Bay, where emergency evacuations go from King Cove, although Murkowski has criticized that as costly. She pegged the Coast Guard's emergency medevac costs at $210,000 each and said it would cost $165 million to establish a year-round base, plus $11 million a year to operate.
U.S. Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican, went a little further.
"This Congress passed the ability to s build that road," he told Jewell during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in early April. "If someone dies out of King Cove, I want you to really think about it and be ashamed of yourself."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)