Mar 25, 2009

Wilderness Bill with Izembek NWR Land Swap Passes

Izembek NWRIn the past, this blog has followed the saga of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge land swap provision, which would lead to the construction of a $15.6 million, nine-mile gravel road through federally designated wilderness in one of the most pristine refuges in the Refuge System.

The Izembek NWR land swap deal could have been defeated by itself, but it was rolled into the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 — along with many popular wilderness bills — and this omnibus bill has now passed both the House and Senate and will be signed into law.

Provisions have been added to the omnibus bill that will require an environmental review of the Izembek road project, and this review will be sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who must find that there is a public purpose for the road to be built.

Supporters of the road claim that the land swap is necessary so residents of small King Cove (population 800) can build a road through the refuge for medical emergencies, but taxpayers have already spent millions to enable this small town in Alaska to reach medical care via a hovercraft.

On March 20, 2009, The Washington Post reported on environmentalists’ objections to the road:

“It is, in our view, a world-class boondoggle,” said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, noting that the refuge supports migratory birds such as the Pacific black brant as well as caribou and the Alaskan brown bear. “Izembek is a sacrificial lamb in the public lands bill.”

Hirsche said taxpayers have spent $41 million addressing the medical and transport needs of King Cove residents, including building a medical center and buying the new hovercraft to transport them to Cold Bay. The hovercraft, which has conducted 32 successful medical evacuations, can transport 56 passengers across the bay in 20 minutes in 10-foot waves.

On November 9, 2008, The Washington Post also exposed what is another concern for environmentalists — that the road proposal is really meant to bring commercial development to the area, not medical help, which would explain how the King Cove villagers managed to attract high-powered lobbyists to sell the Izembek land swap on Capitol Hill:

Their emissary in Alaska was Mark Hickey, a former state transportation commissioner who lobbies for municipal governments and also represents Harbor Enterprise, an oil and gas marketing and distribution company. The villagers also hired Steven Silver, who was the lobbyist for Wasilla when Gov. Sarah Palin was its mayor, to represent King Cove in Washington…

The Izembek refuge abuts the North Aleutian Basin, one of the nation’s last untapped petroleum reservoirs…

Borough Mayor Stanley Mack said Shell executives have visited multiple times, and he predicted an enormous natural gas operation in colder waters to the north. King Cove could become the staging site. In preparation, the city has created a football-field-size swath of harbor that could store heavy equipment…

Shell’s interest in the area is not academic. The company paid almost $1 million in 2007 for rights to drill on 33 blocks of state land in the borough. The company has courted local officials, taking them this year to visit offshore facilities in the Gulf of Mexico and to a conference in Norway…

The road through Izembek would initially ban commercial traffic, but some think it could one day be used to move workers or equipment between King Cove, with its deep harbor, and Cold Bay, with its airport.

The Department of Interior will be required to review the Izembek NWR land swap and determine if this road is really needed for medical emergencies or if it’s really meant to help bring King Cove and Shell Oil closer together.


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