Why Is A Proposed Road In An Alaskan Wildlife Refuge So Controversial?

A decadeslong battle to put a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge may be coming to an end thanks to a land exchange agreement.

Why Is A Proposed Road In An Alaskan Wildlife Refuge So Controversial?
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Kristine Sowl

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has approved a long-sought land exchange that could lead to a controversial road being built through an Alaskan wildlife refuge. 

The agreement lets King Cove, a remote Alaskan town, exchange some of its tribal land for federal land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Officials plan to build a 12-mile road through the refuge, connecting the town to an all-weather airport often used for medical evacuations.

Locals say the road would be a much safer way to get to the airport during emergencies. Right now, they fly in, sail in or get evacuated straight from King Cove. Between 1980 and 1994, 12 people died while being airlifted out of town.

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But conservationists say they don't want a road through the refuge. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded a road would cause "irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it."

Critics also argue while the government says the road's primary purpose is medical evacuations, its actual use might be commercial. King Cove is the home of North America's largest salmon cannery, and a road could help transport goods to the nearby airport.

King Cove officials think construction will take two or three years — if the road is ever built. Advocacy groups, like Defenders of Wildlife, say they plan on challenging the federal land exchange in court.