The federal government said Tuesday it rejected a plan to build a road through a wildlife refuge that would have given a small Aleut village in Alaska better access to medical care.
Villagers in remote King Cove had sought the one-lane gravel road for transporting emergency medical patients to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will choose the "no action" alternative to a proposed land swap for a road corridor bisecting Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The decision is a victory for environmental groups that submitted thousands of public comments protesting the road. They said patients can be transported by boat and avoid the refuge on the Alaska Peninsula at the head of the Aleutian Islands.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and the rest of the state's congressional delegation condemned the decision. King Cove's airport is frequently closed by high wind and foul weather, she said, and people have died trying to reach hospitals.
"This decision is unacceptable and reflects a wanton disregard for the lives of the Aleut people who have called the Aleutians home for thousands of years," Murkowski said.
Rep. Don Young, a Republican, called the decision shameful. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, said it was wrong-headed.
In the past 30 years, a dozen deaths have been attributed to the lack of a road, including four people who died in a 1981 airplane crash during an attempted medical evacuation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded a road could cause irrevocable damage to the refuge that protects the watershed of several large lagoons, including the 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, which provides one of the world's largest beds of eelgrass for Pacific brant, endangered Steller's eiders and other migratory birds.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred alternative would protect the heart of a pristine landscape that Congress designated as wilderness and that serves as vital habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon, shorebirds and waterfowl — including 98 percent of the world's population of Pacific black brant," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
The land exchange would have removed 206 acres from the refuge for the road and 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak.
In return, the federal government would have received about 43,093 acres of state land and 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation set up by federal law as part of Alaska's Native land claims settlement.
The decision against the road was made during an environmental review of the land exchange, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said.
"Congress charged the service with evaluating the environmental impacts of the land exchange and the proposed road," he said. "That's what we limited our analysis to."
The decision will be published Wednesday in the Federal Register and a final record of decision will follow in 30 days, he said.
"The habitat that would have been exchanged was not habitat that would have been unique with in the national wildlife refuge system," Woods said, adding it was a difficult decision.
Beth Peluso of Audubon Alaska praised the decision and said her group supports finding a marine option for moving medical patients.
"It would be a little bit like substituting a hardware store for a grocery store," she said. "The hardware store might be a little bit bigger, but you're not going to get what you need."
Fishing boats that have tried to transport patients have been turned back by bad weather. Congress in 1998 attempted to address the access problem with a $37.5 million appropriation that paid for a $9 million hovercraft to ferry villagers between the two communities.
The vessel cost more than $1 million a year to operate, a price the Aleutians East Borough concluded it could not afford.
Woods said a landing craft might be an option, but King Cove city administrator Gary Hennigh called a marine option a smoke screen.
"We can't get there with any degree of predictability and regularity," he said.
State and tribal leaders put together what they considered an unprecedented land exchange offer. To have it rejected is exasperating, Hennigh said.
"To us it simply says that the government believes the Aleut people matter less to them than the tundra swan and the black brant," he said.
Murkowski vowed to keep pushing for the road.
"If the environmental review process doesn't allow for valuing the health and safety of a community then it is irrevocably broken," she said.
Salazar is not bound by the finding of the environmental review, she said.
"It is imperative that he meet face to face with the people whose lives he is putting at risk before making a final decision," she said. "This fight is not over."