Interior Secretary's Confirmation Hits Snags Over Proposed Road In Alaska

Sally Jewell was tapped last month for Interior Secretary but one of Alaska's senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski, announced she might block the nomination. At issue is a proposed gravel road in King Cove, Alaska. The town is so remote that the residents have no way to get in and out. The road would connect King Cove to a larger town nearby, but it would have to cut through a national wildlife refuge. Washington Post environment reporter Juliet Eilperin explains to Audie Cornish why the town of less than a thousand has an impact on a nomination for a national position

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Another nominee for the president's cabinet is already facing a challenge. Sally Jewell was tapped last month for Interior Secretary and quickly, one of Alaska's senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski, announced she might block the nomination. The issue may seem small to people outside Alaska, but for the fewer than 1,000 people who live in King Cove, Alaska, it's huge.

As Murkowski explained on the Senate floor last week, King Cove wants a gravel road that would connect it to a larger town nearby. But the road would have to cut through a national wildlife refuge.

SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI: We're asking for a 10-mile, one-lane gravel - basically emergency access for the people of King Cove. But sometimes I think that because King Cove is so far out of the way - that it's kind of out of sight, out of mind - and that maybe what we'll do is we'll just say, in this part of the country, the birds are more important than the people.

CORNISH: Joining us to explain this episode of Washington politics is Juliet Eilperin, who has written about it for The Washington Post. Juliet, welcome to the show.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thanks so much, Audie.

CORNISH: So, first of all, let's hear about this place in Alaska, King Cove. Just how remote is it?

EILPERIN: It is very remote. I mean, it is a place that is not connected by roads to anywhere else, essentially. And so it's actually a vibrant fishing village. They have the Aleut people, so they're native Alaskans. But it is very difficult for them to get out.

CORNISH: And I understand this is not exactly a new fight in Washington. I mean, this issue has been floating around for years. So how have people been getting medical and other supplies in and out of King Cove up until now?

EILPERIN: A few different ways: One is that they fly. They have a small airport. It's not an all-weather regional airport like there is 27 miles away in Cold Bay. But they have flown out and sometimes in difficult weather conditions.

They also go by boat to Cold Bay. Taxpayers gave this community $37.5 million several years ago, so they both could establish a telemedicine center, so they can connect by video to experts. And in addition to that, we've spent $9 million of that 37 million for a hovercraft, so they could get over in just 20 minutes to Cold Bay as long as weather was permitting.

CORNISH: Whoa, did you just say hovercraft? Is that something they're using a lot?

EILPERIN: Well, it was something that they were using. They stopped using it a couple of years ago because they came to the conclusion that it costs a million dollars a year to operate and that it wasn't worth it, given that there were certain times of the year where they couldn't use it to get over to Cold Bay.

CORNISH: So tell us more about this road project. What exactly is this proposal?

EILPERIN: The residents of King Cove are asking for an 11-mile gravel road to go through a national wildlife refuge, which is also a wilderness area. So essentially, they're asking to have a road that would connect the two communities. And because they're not actually allowed to have a road in a wilderness area, they would do a land swap where they would give some of their land as well as some state land in exchange for 206 acres from the refuge and another 1,600 acres from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

This is fiercely opposed primarily by the environmentalists as well as government officials in the Fish and Wildlife Service. What the concern is, is it really would be incredibly difficult to maintain the ecological integrity of the wetlands. In addition, there are some concern about how that road would work, given that the entire area is pockmarked with lakes and lagoons. And given the sea level rise, it might not even be operating for the extended future.

CORNISH: Are they nervous about setting a precedent as well? You know, that like every wildlife community that wants a road may feel like, hey, you gave it to the guys in Alaska.

EILPERIN: Absolutely, this would be unprecedented. And so, certainly, the argument by a number of people in the environmental community is to do this again in wilderness, which has the highest level of protection of land in the country, that that would be dangerous. Senator Murkowski and her allies argue that this is a vital case of life and death. And therefore, we shouldn't worry about precedents.

CORNISH: Now, we should mention that last week Senator Murkowski actually met with Sally Jewell and King Cove residents, had a meeting with the current interior secretary. So what does this all mean? I mean, could Jewell's nomination actually get derailed?

EILPERIN: Potentially. Senator Murkowski has not backed down from her position that she will use every tool in her toolbox, as she puts it, in order to get Sally Jewell to do something about it, or get Ken Salazar - who is on record saying that this is not a good idea - to reverse that decision. So it is possible she could press the administration to do it.

What it also is, is a commentary on what senators do during the nomination process. Even if they don't think they can derail a nomination, it's their moment to extract concessions from an administration because this is the moment where they do wield considerable power.

CORNISH: Juliet Eilperin, she covers the environment for The Washington Post. Juliet, thank you.

EILPERIN: Thank you.

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