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Opinion: Columnists

Ron Arnold: Feds cause Alaskan road crisis

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Republican Rep. Don Young, Alaska's at-large representative in the U.S. House, is hopping mad. Three weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service caved in to affluent urban Big Green pressure groups and refused to allow a congressionally approved life-saving road in the remote Aleutian Islands to connect isolated King Cove to Cold Bay, which has the only reliable medical evacuation airport in the region.

The small-plane flights out of King Cove (population 938) to Cold Bay's large former military airport for medevac service are grounded or delayed half the time, which has contributed to 11 deaths in the past 40 years -- hence the need for road access. So Don Young isn't the only one angry at FWS. The state of Alaska, the Aleutians East Borough, the Belkofski Tribal Council, the Agdaagux Tribe and the city of King Cove are all fuming, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

Peter Pan Seafoods, which runs Alaska's largest salmon processing plant in King Cove, is likely disappointed, too. It keeps nearly 500 employees on the job in summer and winter peak seasons. The company's website is silent on the FWS action -- business prudence says not to irritate your regulator, especially with the Obama administration's "crucify them all" approach to regulation.

Defenders of Wildlife ($35.3 million in assets in 2011), with total disregard for human life, ran a costly "get out the comments" campaign that wrecked a carefully crafted congressional agreement to build the road with the least possible impact on habitat by a land exchange and the addition of more than 56,000 acres to the present 315,000-acre wildlife refuge. President Obama actually signed the bill authorizing the road.

A Defenders of Wildlife press release wildly exaggerated the planned road's damage to a goose habitat, characterizing a "yes" decision by FWS to be "a dangerous precedent for the future of wildlife refuge and wilderness area management across the country."

Notice that the group conflates wildlife refuges with wilderness areas, separate kinds of designations it is trying to meld. This is just the usual trick of moving the goal post. In a wilderness area, no structures, roads, motorized vehicles or other signs of human presence are permitted, aside from government trails. Wildlife refuges, on the other hand, allow many people-oriented uses, including hunting, fishing, family recreation, extensive road access, and lucrative guide services.

What burns Young most is the trouble Congress went to, only to be blocked by apparent Obama administration collusion with Big Green. "We had hearings, we had the land transfer, we had everything going to work so these people could be ... safe to fly out when the weather was bad," he said in a press release. "But along comes Fish and Wildlife and denies them the trade that has to be necessary for this transportation corridor."

Departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is the boss of FWS and he has the final decision. The House has no legal authority over Cabinet confirmations -- a strictly Senate power -- but Young urged his Senate colleagues to put the nomination of former REI CEO Sally Jewell for interior secretary on hold until Salazar says "yes." Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he would bring it up at her confirmation hearing.

I asked Young for his final word on FWS. He picked a juicy one: "Shameful."

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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