Drop the pretense that the King Cove road is only for medical emergencies

The King Cove road approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, if it is built, will be used for commercial purposes, not just for medical emergencies.

I think the road should have been built decades ago, but the public relations campaign for the project has been disingenuous in claiming that this is all about medevac flights and that road opponents want Alaskans to die. The early lobbying for the road was more honest—portraying it as a means of promoting economic development and safety. 

The Alaska Congressional delegation has long said this project would provide access to "emergency medical transportation" and be a "non-commercial road," which is the kind of thing you say to get the road approved.  The commercial uses would take place after the road is built.

The agreement,  which says the road is to be used "primarily for health, safety and quality of life and generally for noncommercial purposes," has plenty of wiggle room for commercial purposes.

It is less restrictive than the bill proposed by the Alaska delegation that called for barriers to keep ATVs on the road and other limitations. It is also less restrictive than the law passed in 2009 that said it would be used for "only noncommercial purposes." The word "only" is not in the Zinke plan.

Future commercial uses would probably include trucking some seafood from the Peter Pan cannery in King Cove to the Cold Bay airport, which has a runway about two miles long and is nearly always open. The cannery is owned by Maruha Nichiro, a giant seafood company. The plant employs nearly 500 people during the peak winter and summer seasons, Peter Pan says.

I know that the Zinke agreement says the "commercial transport of fish and seafood products" would not be permitted, except by "an individual or a small business," but there is no reason to expect enforcement of this provision and every reason to expect a future effort to amend the language.

Once the road is built and open for business, it would be foolish to not try and maximize the value of Alaska seafood by getting it to the Cold Bay airport for major air freight shipments. If Zinke remains Interior Secretary he won't hesitate to back that change.

Read what Peter Pan Seafoods said about the road in 2014. And remember that the prohibition on all commercial uses is not part of the new plan.

The main opposition to this is really about creating a precedent that would lead to other roads in designated wilderness areas across the country. There is also the matter of the tens of millions spent so far on access and medical help.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark wrote in 2013 that the Alaska delegation pretends that the $9 million hovercraft never did what it was supposed to do.

 "That hovercraft purchased with taxpayer dollars? Despite a 100 percent success rate in carrying out more than 30 medical evacuations, local officials suspended service in 2010, saying the hovercraft was unreliable and too expensive to operate. But that hasn’t stopped them from using it to transport seasonal seafood workers from a nearby cannery," they said.

It is impossible to imagine an expensive hovercraft as a longterm solution, given maintenance and operating costs and the need for an annual state subsidy. Still, the road also comes with high costs that have not been settled.

Despite the emotional appeal, redirecting $20 million or $30 million from other state projects to road construction is going to bother legislators from the cities. So will any request for annual maintenance money at a time when roads in Fairbanks and Anchorage need more attention.

King Cove officials told the Washington Post in early January that 10 to 15 cars would use the road on a daily basis. As to the plan for medical evacuations on a gravel road during severe storms, that is a "calamity in waiting," a public health service doctor wrote in 2013. He said that evacuations by Bering Sea crabbers—in vessels capable of handling severe weather—would be safe, but what was really needed was a breakwater at the Cold Bay dock.

The agreement signed by Zinke, who was designated an "honorary Alaskan," according to Sen. Dan Sullivan, does not prohibit commercial uses.  Rather than discuss the restrictions and consequences in public, the Honorary Alaskan opted to negotiate this in secret with the King Cove Native Corp., the Washington Post reported.

Last summer, King Cove formally asked for the land exchange, but Zinke was already pushing the idea. When Zinke told Gov. Bill Walker about his intentions in a phone call, the state issued a press release. Steve Wackowski, a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens and former campaign manager for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, was irritated that Walker informed the public.

Wackowski wanted his new boss and his old boss to decide when to end the secrecy.

"We still have a ways to go to close this deal and getting ahead of the public policy process, especially in the front pages of the news may delay or derail our efforts," Wackowski complained in an email to the governor's press secretary.

The Trump administration claims that it has the authority under the  Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to make this land exchange, but environmental groups will probably argue in court that the provision allowing land exchanges is for "acquiring lands for the purposes of this Act," and that Zinke should have asked Congress for approval.

I can be reached at dermotmcole@gmail.com

Dermot Cole4 Comments