When Wilderness Begins

Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

by Gary Hennigh, King Cove, Alaska

“When does the wilderness begin?” That was the question from Bjorn Dihle writing for the April edition of Alaska Magazine[1] in an article entitled “A Tale of Two Roads.” It recounts his extended walk from Cold Bay to King Cove, Alaska to see what the proposed route for a road through twelve miles of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (“Refuge”) looks like. He and two friends hoofed it the old fashioned way, heel to toe, eyes on the horizon and cameras heavy around their necks. If you pull back the lens of their journey, it’s not hard to see instead, three Aleut men[2], following a well-worn trail laid down by their ancestors from a history before recorded time.

In the same Alaska magazine piece, Susan Culliney, policy director for Audubon Alaska is asked why her organization, like most other environmental groups, is adamantly opposed to the road. She offered this reason: “A road increases access and opens a door for more roads. We see this as a death by a thousand cuts. The way to prevent those thousand cuts is to prevent that first cut.”

As City Administrator for King Cove, I have learned a lot about wilderness, when it begins and the history of how we arrived at this moment. I hope to demonstrate for Ms. Culliney and her partners in the environmental community how her “death by a thousand cuts” analogy is deeply insulting as applied to this Refuge and the human beings who live just outside it. For this is a story of redress long demanded by an indigenous population that was not consulted about the contours of a wilderness map that would change their lives forever. Insult upon injury, our opponents have outright lied about our motives and used their worst fears to project a type of bad behavior on our population without warrant. They paint us with a destructive brush we’ve done nothing to deserve.

The First Cut is the Deepest A 19th Century Decision

In 2014, commemorating the fifty year anniversary of The Wilderness Act, then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spoke to a crowd gathered at the Great Swamp Refuge in New Jersey. She spoke of the specialness of the place, how wonderful for New Yorkers to have “a taste of wilderness, a taste of what this country was before we took over so much of it, and what there is at stake and what there is to protect.[3]” It bears remembering from whom the taking over was accomplished.

In one of the earliest quiet title decisions by the Supreme Court, (Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823)[4] the court wrote: “Conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny, whatever the private and speculative opinions of individuals may be, respecting the original justice of the claim which has been successfully asserted. The British government, which was then our government and whose rights have passed to the United States, asserted title to all the lands occupied by Indians within the chartered limits of the British colonies. It asserted also a limited sovereignty over them and the exclusive right of extinguishing the title which occupancy gave to them. These claims have been maintained and established as far west as the River Mississippi by the sword.”[5]

The legal framework for extinguishing tribal land rights was explained this way: “…the tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages whose occupation was war and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness;”[6] As this principle was applied, over time indigenous populations were subjected to “…an agentless ethnic cleansing in which the Native Americans ‘necessarily receded[7]’ along with the deer and the unbroken forests, before the axe and plough of the American frontier…[8]”

Many decades later, many legal actions later, many tribal rights restored later, wilderness was suddenly a jewel to be preserved and cherished. But not until Americans were running out of it. Not until huge swaths of forest had succumbed to the axe and chain saw and not before roads of all shapes and sizes crisscrossed the land, creating the necessary transportation routes for getting citizens where they needed to go.

Life and Death

King Cove is a fishing village of about 1,000 people[9], with no roads into the community. We expand and contract with the fishing seasons. Almost every family has their personal story about a near miss getting in or out of King Cove by plane[10]. The village’s short, 3,000-foot gravel runway sits in a wind tunnel between volcanic mountains. It tells you a lot about our geography that this was the best site. Poor weather shuts down our airstrip about 100 days each year, sometimes days at a time. Medical emergencies during bad weather are life-threatening and pregnant women escape weeks ahead of their due date, families suffer.

In times of dire emergencies, we call on the U.S. Coast Guard; part of the year, they dispatch out of Cold Bay, but worst case is they fly from their Kodiak station 500 miles away. The Coast Guard never fails to show up, often at great personal risk, to deliver our sick and injured[11] to Cold Bay. The sound of their helicopter descending is always met with profound gratitude. We are forever grateful to these brave men and women but we are also profoundly aware that these medevacs come at great expense, through increased pressure on their limited personnel and the extensive costs of each trip, which can run up to $210,000[12] per trip.

KODIAK, Alaska - Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class David Call, a health services technician with Rockmore-King Clinic and resident of Ridgefield, Wash., counts a 5-month-old girl's breath respirations during a medevac aboard an HC-130 Hercules aircraft April 7, 2011. Call would count how many times she would breathe in one minute as well as document her other vital signs 15 minutes to ensure the patient was stable and her oxygen level did not drop during the flight from Cold Bay to Anchorage. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Charly Hengen.

KODIAK, Alaska - Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class David Call, a health services technician with Rockmore-King Clinic and resident of Ridgefield, Wash., counts a 5-month-old girl's breath respirations during a medevac aboard an HC-130 Hercules aircraft April 7, 2011. Call would count how many times she would breathe in one minute as well as document her other vital signs 15 minutes to ensure the patient was stable and her oxygen level did not drop during the flight from Cold Bay to Anchorage. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Charly Hengen.

Eighteen miles away, there is a 10,000 foot runway capable of handling jet fighters and commercial aircraft alike. It’s closed fewer than 10 days a year. Over four decades, King Cove has sought to construct a single-lane, gravel, restricted-use road to that airport, where our sick and injured will be medevacked to Anchorage for advanced medical care. The State of Alaska has supported the project for years and will pay for it with state general funds. Maintenance year round is not an issue.

Broad Support

The Aleutians East Borough (read county), the Aleut Corporation and the Agdaagux and Belkofski tribes of the region all support our efforts. We have the support of the National Congress of American Indians[13] and they have lobbied Congress on our behalf. We enjoy the support of governors, past and present, our Congressional delegation, and Senator Lisa Murkowski is our champion, as was her father Frank before her. In 2016, after several close-call medevacs, she made these remarks to her fellow Senators:[14] “As remote as they are, and as far away as they are, and as small as their community may be, I would remind the Senate: this is still an American community. It is still our job to help them. And they are not asking for much…The people of King Cove are suffering, lives are at stake, and it is entirely within our power to protect them.”

Lack of Access to Public Process

On December 6, 1960, Presidential Eisenhower signed the Executive Order creating the Izembek National Wildlife Range. The Wilderness Act[15] passed Congress in 1964. In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act[16], under whose auspices the King Cove Corporation was created. In 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Lands Interest Conservation Act (“ANILCA”.) This act officially designated as “wilderness[17]” about 300,000 acres of what would be renamed the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

In quick succession, these four events conspired in their content and timing to make a transportation route to Cold Bay a thousand times harder to accomplish. Under authority granted by ANCSA, in 1971 the King Cove Village Corporation (KCC) began its selection of about 100,000 acres of federal land in and around the community, and traditional subsistence lands in the Izembek Refuge area. These selections quickly became problematic wherever they conflicted with areas identified as “wilderness” lands in the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Two public hearings on the “wilderness” designation were held Alaska in May 1971[18], one in Anchorage and one in Cold Bay. There were no hearings in King Cove nor is there evidence to suggest that King Cove city or tribal leaders were ever invited to testify. Public comments were generally from government officials anxious to establish Izembek as a non-mineral area. Robert Beardsley, then Commissioner of Highways, asked for a road corridor to be preserved. His idea was rejected as insufficient in “local support” and detail about the project.[19] Cold Bay roads, however, were well preserved, not only exempted from the wilderness map, but adjoining lands set aside as well to allow for the airport’s eventual expansion.

This governmental failure to solicit King Cove’s input, left residents completely in the dark about how this new law would up-end their lives. Tribal leaders, acting on behalf of the newly formed KCC, would certainly have used their ANCSA land selection authority to secure a route to Cold Bay, given the chance. But instead, Cold Bay, population 108[20],and a town that to this day exist only for because of the airport, was able to draw for themselves a favorable map. Another thousand cuts.

All About the Seafood

It was 1995 when Governor Knowles gave a speech entitled “A Transportation Plan for Alaska’s Future.” Speaking before the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, he framed his support for a King Cove to Cold Bay road as the ideal rural Alaska project, particularly as it would contribute to getting Alaska’s premium seafood more quickly to market.

We didn’t write that speech or suggest those words and yet we are associated with them. When we return to our medevac argument, we are accused of duplicity. It is hard to disprove such a conspiracy theory.[21]

To this present day, Peter Pan Seafoods has never taken an official position on a road connection to the Cold Bay Airport. Frustrated by road opponents accusing them of ulterior motives, they entered a letter into the public record[22] to establish once and for all the authenticity of the community’s public health motive for a road. As a practical matter, the majority of cannery product is loaded directly onto refrigerated tenders in King Cove, intended for delivery to both Asian and West Coast markets. This has always been their process, they are invested in its efficiency and cost-effectiveness and there are no plans to change it.

Ups & Down, We Carry On

Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

I have been King Cove’s City Administrator for 27 years. From my first City Council meeting in December 1989, I understood that this road was the community’s highest priority and therefore mine as well. I was impressed that King Cove passed its first resolution in support of the road in 1976 and it was referenced in the city’s first community drafted Comprehensive Plan in 1980.

Over the years, as I attended funerals and retirements, during the Centennial celebration of the town’s formation (1911), I listened to stories told by old timers of the World War II days. Cold Bay was Fort Randall[23] then, and the airport was built quickly to serve as a critical lifeline for our troops in the Aleutians, fighting Japanese invaders. Even then there was talk of a road between the towns, as soldiers and residents working side by side, pushed roads throughout the wilderness. Many of those roads are still driven on within the Refuge today.[24]

Knowing this history, as I began to put the puzzle pieces of this road campaign together, I was taken aback by the level of resistance, the vitriol of our opponents, and by how poorly Aleut lives were esteemed as compared to the sanctity of wilderness[25]. I bristled at any characterization of the road as mortal enemy of the Pacific Black Brant or Tundra Swan. As city leaders, we categorically reject the premise that if we win a road, migratory and other wildlife automatically lose. Nonsense.

We have persisted at great cost of dollars and time, over many decades and after watching many medevacs take our breath away. Concurrently, we quietly pursued two highly successful hydroelectric projects and at this time of year, 100 percent of our electricity is from a renewable source.[26] Our environmental record is inconvenient to the narrative that we are nothing more than agents for the seafood industry, but so it goes.

We have lived through many disappointments, but the low point was probably just before Christmas Day in December 2015, when then Secretary Jewell determined that our road was not in the public interest[27]. We were blown back to be sure. In the new year, we began again.

We found allies in the new administration. Just this last January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement[28] with KCC that provides for 500 Refuge acres to be traded in exchange for private lands of equal value. This represents only 0.07 percent of the 315,000 pristine acres that comprise the Izembek with compensating land in the package. No thousand cuts in sight.

The agreement was immediately challenged in court by national environmental groups[29]. The federal government has responded by asking for their lawsuit’s dismissal; the argument is that these plaintiffs are not harmed by the Department’s decision to uphold its duty to King Cove’s Aleut residents. We await the court’s ruling.

In 1980, the same year that President Carter signed ANILCA, 10 people died in two plane crashes in King Cove within seven months. A fisherman who severed his leg in a boating accident was killed, along with three others, when his medevac plane crashed shortly after takeoff. Months later, six lives were lost when their plane crashed in the heavy rain and fog common to King Cove’s summers. Spines of steel were forged in that terrible year and a mantra rose up that such a year must never be repeated.

So it has been my job to repeat that mantra and work with all my might for a road through a wilderness for the Aleuts of King Cove. They are rightly concerned for the physical safety of their children and equally invested in the survival of their culture. Parents are right to fear that their kids won’t stay in a place where a problem pregnancy or ruptured appendix may become a death sentence. Hearts hurt at the thought that young Alaska Native adults will sever their deep connection with this place and be gone.

Mystery of the Uncut Wilderness

We must look ridiculous to our opponents who believe we’ve sacrificed all this time and effort in furtherance of a seafood delivery system. Our actions make little sense when viewed through that narrow and historically shallow lens. But if they could only pull back to see the picture as it is, the one of the baby struggling to breathe or the fisherman with the severed leg, then our campaign makes perfect sense and explains why we will not and cannot give up. It really is that simple.

My answer to Mr. Dihle’s question is this: Wilderness begins and is where indigenous people live, whether that wilderness contains roads, vehicles, or other means and routes of transportation and development. Through all the public hearings and hours of testimony, I could hear the voices of those three Aleut men, having just hiked the same route as that taken by Mr. Dihle. They bid our 21st century selves to trust that their sacred compact is unchanged from what it has always been: Take from the land what is needed to survive and nothing more. Their proof that such a compact exists? Behold 315,000 acres of pristine wilderness.

As for Ms. Culliney’s worries about that future of a thousand cuts, she has confused her histories. Hers is a world as was decided by that early Supreme Court, where colonial settlers were encouraged to tack west, taking what lands they wanted, roads cleared by axe and plough. In this world the land belonged to the settlers. Meanwhile, King Cove’s ancestors were subsisting off the land, behaving in ways that come naturally to a people who belong to the land. And in so doing, managed to leave it “useless wilderness” for Refuge visitors to enjoy.

This road will be modestly used by a projected average of 10-15 cars/day, with medically necessary travel having priority. Residents will take care to avoid all animal and bird encounters and the distance of the road from prime eating grounds for migratory flocks will result in minimal disruption of those populations. The lagoons with their eel grass will flourish as they have for millennia, distanced from the single-lane gravel road that will carry their indigenous, human neighbors.

We know how to look out for each other. We know the beauty and the abundance of intact wilderness because our lives are intertwined with this place. Road access to an airport where flights depart 95 percent of the time is not too much to ask for the gift of wilderness. Rather than a first cut, it feels more like the righting of a terrible wrong and the beginning of a healing long overdue.


[1] Alaska Magazine April 2018

[2] These subsistence hunters would have been members of the federally recognized Agdaagux or Belkofski Tribes (now known as the Village of Belkofski.) As economic opportunities in the Pribilofs, King Cove or Sand Point pulled residents away from their cash-poor village, Belkofski is used now primarily as a summer fish camp. The last of the Belkofski residents moved to King Cove in the early 1980s, taking their church bell with them.

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s-bgk1f0Xs&feature=youtu.be

[4] Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823) https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/21/543/case.html

[5] Id at 588

[6] Id at 590

[7] Johnson v. M’Intosh at 590-591

[8] https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/faculty_scholarship/1837 Property & Empire pg 331

[9] http://www.aleutianseast.org/index.asp?SEC=701F871D-442C-47F6-940E-E68682A0A516&Type=B_BASIC

[10] “Since the creation of the wildlife refuge, 18 people have died in plane crashes.” Della Trumble, lifetime resident of King Cove and spokeswoman for the King Cove Corporation in Wall Street Journal see https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-government-shouldnt-value-bears-over-people-1523658441

[11] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Airsta_Kodiak_C130_medevacs_King_Cove_child-Call_110407-G-RS249-592.jpg Source for photograph #1.

[12] https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/11/coast-guard-readiness-how-far-can-we-stretch-our-nation-s-only-multi-mission-military-force See 39:37 - 39:54 –testimony of Senator Dan Sullivan relating to use of Coast Guard assets for King Cove medevacs.


[14] https://www.murkowski.senate.gov/press/release/murkowski-51-medevacs-and-counting-from-king-cove-

[15] “The 1964 Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System and directed that only Congress can designate federal lands as part of the national system. Designations are often controversial because commercial activities, motorized access, and roads, structures, and facilities generally are restricted in wilderness areas. Similarly, agency wilderness studies are controversial, because many uses also are restricted in the study areas to preserve wilderness characteristics while Congress considers possible designations.” From report entitled: Federal Lands Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service (FS): Issues for the 110th Congress - Updated May 9, 2008

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Native_Claims_Settlement_Act

[17] “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Definition of wilderness; See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilderness_Act

[18] Synopsis of Wilderness Proposal pages 16-21- Even if King Cove residents had heard of the hearing going on in Cold Bay that May, which the record reflects no notice of, it would have been prime fishing season and the worst possible time for local residents to attend.

[19] Pg 5 of the Synopsis of Wilderness Proposal - “His request was rejected because his department’s plans…are much too indefinite to justify a road corridor exclusion…Most people, including Mr. Robert Reeve of Reeve Aleutian Airways, felt that adequate opportunity now exists for public use and enjoyment of the Range.”

[20] http://censusviewer.com/city/AK/Cold%20Bay/2010

[21] See L.A. Times 3/11/14 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-babbitt-road-to-nowhere-alaska-20140311,0,6005088.story#axzz2wLAtc1yG

[22] https://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=0856CFE3-D3FA-4E4E-99AD-1FF537180161

[23] See Cold Bay in World War II: Fort Randall and Russian Naval Land Lease” (D. Colt Denfield, US Army COE, Alaska District, May 1988) It is important to note that Cold Bay as a community did not exist at this point in history. The town of Cold Bay developed after World War II and exists today primarily because of the state’s third longest civilian airport located here.

[24] See following report by State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources which describes the miles of roads that exist in National Refuges across this country. There are more than 15,500 miles of existing roads within the nation’s 562 national wildlife refuges and multiple examples of special exemptions being granted. http://aleutianseastborough.govoffice.com/vertical/sites/%7BEBDABE05-9D39-4ED4-98D4-908383A7714A%7D/uploads/National_Wildlife_Refiuge_Road_Analysis.pdf?pri=0&tri=450

[25] http://nationalwildliferefugeassociation.com/new-publications/Izembek.html

[26] https://www.westernplanner.org/environmentalwater/2018/4/10/king-cove-alaska-chapter-two-water-into-powerhouselight

[27] https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/secretary-jewell-issues-decision-on-izembek-national-wildlife-refuge-land-exchange-and-road-proposal

[28] https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/secretary-zinke-approves-initial-plan-build-life-saving-road-alaska-native-village

[29] https://wildernesswatch.org/wilderness-watch-sues-interior-secretary-zinke-to-save-the-izembek-wilderness

Gary Hennigh has been the City Administrator for the City of King Cove, Alaska for the last 28 years. His proudest achievements are being the catalyst in shaping King Cove to be one of Alaska’s premier renewable energy communities. Prior to his current position, he was the Community Development Director for the City of Valdez, Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Gary is a 40-year resident of Alaska. He has an undergraduate degree in geography and a Master’s degree in regional planning from Penn State University. He enjoys hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing, and simply loves the great Alaskan outdoors!

Published October 2018