A Road Across Refuge

Proposed road across Alaskan wildlife refuge could help save lives—or open the area to drilling
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Proposed road across Alaskan wildlife refuge could help save lives—or open the area to drilling

Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge isn't as well known as ANWR, but it bears the same controversy: Locals, wildlife officials, and oil industry representatives have mounted a pitched battle over whether to allow construction of a single gravel road across the refuge.

Some locals insist that the road is necessary to connect the isolated Aleut community of King Cove, pop. 800, to Cold Bay, which has the only airport capable of airlifting injured or sick people during the regions often terrible weather. Normally, residents would have to travel several miles by sea or small airplane just to reach the larger airport in Cold Bay.

But other residents and representatives from wildlife groups like the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the Wilderness Society insist that oil and gas companies are behind the road, hoping that they can eventually use it to transport workers through the environmentally sensitive area on the way to new oil and gas drilling projects.

"The premise for this road is absurd," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which opposes the road as an unprecedented intrusion into a federal preserve. "It won't work as advertised and won't save lives. The only way it makes any sense at all is if you tie it to oil and gas development."

Locals offer equally compelling arguments, though:

But residents who live on the other side of the refuge, across an inlet, in the 800-person village of King Cove simply point to the wreckage of small planes that failed to reach their narrow gravel airstrip and now litter Mount Dutton, a dormant volcano.

"Go up and look at that graveyard," said Herman "Buddy" Bendixen, 83, an Aleut elder and lifelong resident. "They got sick and couldn't get out."

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge hosts plentiful grizzlies and bald eagles, and serves as critical habitat for scores of Artcic sea birds, like sea geese Pacific black brants. Townspeople have spent millions on hiring high-powered Washington lobbyists to secure funding for the road; critics say that kind of money could only come from the oil industry. Recently, Shell took city officials to visit oil-drilling operations in Norway and the Gulf of Mexico, and they designed a second- and third-grade curriculum to teach students about oil and gas development.

Wildlife watchers worry that the road could set precedent for drilling in other ecologically sensitive areas, but so far, the fed seems to be on their side: The Fish and Wildlife Service in Cold Bay seems to think the area is strictly for the birds.

—Ted Alvarez

Proposed Road in Refuge Raises Fears About Drilling (Washington Post)