WASHINGTON — The House has approved legislation allowing a proposed road through a remote national wildlife refuge in Alaska that was rejected by the Obama administration.
A bill approved Thursday would grant a land exchange allowing Alaska to build the long-disputed road between two rural communities, King Cove and Cold Bay, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, 600 miles (965 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage.
The bill, sponsored by Alaska’s sole representative, Republican Don Young, was approved on a vote of 248-179. It now goes to the Senate.
Supporters say the road is needed because strong winds and mountains make air travel in the region unpredictable, creating a life-threatening problem in medical emergencies. Critics counter that the road, located within the sprawling Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, threatens migratory birds and other animals, including caribou, brown bears and sea otters.
Congress approved a land exchange for the project in 2009, but then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the plan in 2013, saying a road over a narrow isthmus in the refuge could cause irrevocable damage to birds and other wildlife.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said last month that the Interior Department has granted Alaska permission to survey wilderness within the wildlife refuge for the long-sought road, which would extend about 30 miles (48 kilometers), including about 11 miles (18 kilometers) within the wildlife refuge.
Young called the road a matter of life or death for King Cove’s 900 residents.
“Sadly, this legislation is only necessary because of the heartless actions of the previous administration, which … placed the interests of environmentalists and wildlife over human life,” Young said, calling Jewell’s rejection of the road “one of the worst government actions I’ve seen in all my years.”
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee said in a report this week that at least 19 people have died as a result of plane crashes or waiting to be medically evacuated to Cold Bay, the nearest town with an all-weather airport. At least 55 people have required medical evacuations in the past three years, the report said. Many of the evacuations have required services of the U.S. Coast Guard, costing taxpayers up to $30,000 per trip, the report said.
Environmental groups say the rural community has other, better alternatives, such as boats, and for decades have fought an intrusion into the refuge. The National Wildlife Refuge Association, an advocacy group, said the “real reason behind the road” is “economic development, plain and simple.”
The proposed road could be used to quickly transport seafood from King Cove’s large salmon cannery to the Cold Bay airport for distribution around the world, the group said.
Young and Alaska’s two senators, Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, have vowed to work with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to approve the road.