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Alaska Road Proposal Again Threatens Vital Refuge Area

Less than 8 years after losing the battle to build an unnecessary road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and its designated Wilderness area, the Governor of Alaska is once more seeking to build the road.

In 1998, the Alaska delegation attempted to get the Congress to authorize a one-lane gravel road across the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and its designated Wilderness area between the villages of King Cove and Cold Bay. The underlying reason for the road was supposedly to facilitate the transfer of people from King Cove to Cold Bay where there is a major airport facility enabling takeoffs in almost any of the sometimes very inclement weather for which the area is noted. The road was estimated at the time at about $30 million for its 29 miles --certainly the most expensive single lane gravel road in America. The Congress after a major battle and with more than a dozen conservation groups opposing the road on the basis of damage to a pristine and clearly vital area, passed a bill that prohibited the road in the Wilderness and Refuge but authorized alternative transportation between the two communities involved and appropriated $37.5 million for various features to be built.

Now in 2006, the Alaska Governor, and possibly the delegation, is back again wanting the road and proposing a land exchange in order to avoid the legal morass posed by the refuge and Wilderness. The $37.5 million has been spent, and a 17 mile gravel road (which was authorized in legislation sponsored by Senator Stevens of AK in 2003 legislation) has been under development. However, that road is not complete and the money available has run out (total cost is unknown, but seems to be approaching $2 million per mile). Of the other elements in the 1998 legislation, which were designed to improve medical emergency transport of persons from King Cove to hospital facilities in either Anchorage or Bethel either directly or via Cold Bay, a specially designed 98 ft. hovercraft ferry has been, constructed and delivered to the area. But, the King Cove folks say they still want the road through the refuge and that medical issues really weren't the point after all.

Izembek NWR was established in 1960, in part as an international crossroad for migratory birds, especially Pacific black brant, emperor and Canada geese, Steller's eiders, and numerous other migratory birds. The refuge boundary was designed as full watershed protection for the spectacular Izembek Lagoon, an eelgrass-filled bay of world renown (officially designated a Wetlands of International Significance under the Ramsar International Convention).

Literally all of North America's black brant funnel through Izembek. Major portions of the emperor geese (~95-98%), Taverner’s Canada geese, and several other species also funnel into and through this vital staging area. The Steller's eider is listed as Threatened, and the dunlin, a declining shorebird, is on Audubon's 2005 WatchList. The road would be constructed across a marshy area which is the major flight way for all of the waterfowl and most of the shorebirds on the refuge as they cross between eelgrass-rich Izembek Lagoon and Kinzarof Lagoon, a fresh water resting area. The road would be used as access by hunters for both sport and subsistence. The resulting take would be severe. In addition, the refuge is a vital travel corridor for the lower AK Peninsula caribou herd and harbors a high density of brown bears adjacent to portions of the road corridor. The area is also an important fish spawning ground. Thus, the degradation of habitats as a result of the road is simply unacceptable (and, again, unnecessary at the outset). A land exchange would do nothing to resolve the basic issues of degradation, and incompatibility.

Given the Alaska delegation’s penchant for very expensive roads to nowhere, we should not be surprised at this new attempt to force a severely damaging and yet unneeded construction through the very heart of one of North America’s most vital waterfowl reserves. Once again, many national conservation organizations are working together to convince the Secretary of the Interior, and other decision makers to reject this wasteful threat to valued Wilderness and wildlife habitat.