It has been said that nothing dies harder than a bad idea.
Nearly two decades ago, while I was serving as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Alaska’s Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens wanted to build a 38-mile gravel road in their state, with 11 miles going through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The road would connect the salmon canneries in King Cove, population 948, with a larger airport in the neighboring town of Cold Bay to expand and speed shipping.
My boss at the time, President Clinton, promised to veto the bill for a simple reason: It was a bad idea. Based on federal and state documents, the Wilderness Society has estimated the total cost of the “road to nowhere” to U.S. taxpayers at more than $75 million, or $79,113 per resident of King Cove. The project would also set a dangerous precedent as the first new road ever authorized through a congressionally protected wilderness area, one of the most stunning estuaries on the planet.
Time has passed, and a few things have changed, but a boondoggle is still a boondoggle.
Today, it is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the daughter of one of the idea’s original champions, who insists the road must be built. And it is a new secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, who has rightly said no.
The road’s proponents have changed their sales pitch over the last 20 years. They now claim they have no intention of hauling seafood over the road. They say the road is simply needed for emergency medical evacuations.
But despite pledges and promises to the contrary, the real purpose for building the road is the same as it ever was: moving fish and workers to and from King Cove’s canneries. Today, Peter Pan Seafoods, wholly owned by the Japanese company Maruha Capital Investments Inc., is the largest cannery in King Cove. A local assemblyman acknowledged in 2010 that the road would help Peter Pan better transport “fresh product.” And the local borough has been clear about its ambition to ship “live crab directly from the Aleutians East Borough ‘hub’ port of Cold Bay to markets in China and other Asian countries.”
Moreover, in an agreement I helped negotiate with Sen. Stevens in 1998, U.S. taxpayers have already accommodated alternative solutions to King Cove’s concerns about medical emergencies, with the clear understanding that the road would therefore not be built.
Instead of constructing the proposed road — which would be impassable in severe weather — taxpayers invested $37.5 million to upgrade the health clinic at King Cove and purchase a state-of-the-art hovercraft for medical evacuations. The hovercraft performed medevacs so well that the borough’s mayor called it “a lifesaving machine” in 2008. Nonetheless, after a successful three-year record of medical transports, the borough assigned the hovercraft to a different community to provide ferry transportation services for seasonal workers at another seafood plant.
Murkowski and the proponents of the road are still pushing for it as if the 1998 deal never happened, insisting the road is needed for medical emergencies. Anyone who says otherwise, they argue, is putting Alaskan lives at risk. And they are irate that Jewell, after conducting a thorough scientific review of the project and gathering public input, rejected the road in December.
Murkowski has called the rejection of the road “callous and coldhearted,” hinted at the need for “civil disobedience” and promised “to be a hell-raiser on this.”
She is demanding that President Obama and Jewell reconsider the decision. She says the road is among the reasons why she has been delaying and is now opposing the Senate’s confirmation of the president’s nominee to oversee national parks and wildlife refuges.
And if the history of this issue is any guide, Murkowski probably will attempt to override Jewell — and the results of exhaustive scientific review — by attaching a legislative rider to a bill mandating that the project be built at taxpayer expense.
All this is justified, Murkowski argues, because the residents of King Cove “are not being treated fairly.”
Nonsense. U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t be fooled. The road to nowhere is what it was 20 years ago: a fairy tale as unchanging as Peter Pan.
Bruce Babbitt was secretary of the Department of the Interior from 1993 to 2001.