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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Alaska Road

Air Date: Week of July 10, 1998

Congress is considering a controversial plan to cut a road through the remote Alaskan wilderness area of Izembek (EYE-zem-bek) National Wildlife Refuge. The Izembek is nestled among the rugged mountain terrain and teeming coastal wetlands of the state's remote western tip, out towards the Aleutian islands. Republican lawmakers from Alaska are asking Congress to build a road through the refuge in order to link two isolated villages. Proponents say the road is needed for medical emergencies, while opponents say it could knock the region's eco-system off balance, and set a dangerous precedent of allowing construction in a federally protected area. Greg Siekaniec (sa-CAN-ick) is a biologist and manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. From his office in Cold Bay, he described to Steve Curwood some of the waterfowl that stop over in the refuge.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is nestled among the rugged mountain terrain and teeming coastal wetlands of the state's remote western tip, out towards the Aleutian Islands. Republican law makers from Alaska are asking Congress to build a road through the refuge in order to link 2 isolated villages. Proponents say the road is needed for medical emergencies, but opponents say it could knock the region's ecosystem off balance and set a dangerous precedent of allowing construction in a federally-protected area. Greg Siekaniec is a biologist and manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. From his office in Cold Bay, he described the waterfowl that stop over in the refuge.

SIEKANIEC: There are large populations of Pacific black brant, emperor geese, Stellars eiders, myriad of other species such as tintils, and mallards, and scop. The unique landscape features are of course areas that have inhabitants of the Alaskan brown bear, wolves, caribou.

CURWOOD: Is this one of the wildest places in America?

SIEKANIEC: Oh, it certainly can be in terms of both species of birds and mammals that are represented and even in environments at times.

CURWOOD: Now, we called you up because there is a proposal in front of the United States Congress to build a 30-mile road through 10 miles of your refuge, and that would include some 7 miles of Congressionally-designated wilderness area. The legislation that calls for the road say it would be a simple, single-lane gravel strip that would be there to promote public health and safety. Would a road really make that big a difference there?

SIEKANIEC: In regards to, would it compromise wilderness values, you know, that, to me, sort of goes without saying. The act is very clear that roads and man-made structures are just not meant to be within wilderness areas or developed within wilderness areas.

CURWOOD: What are the things that concern you directly about the wildlife and this road?

SIEKANIEC: The proposed road route would bring, on a daily basis, the human access into the edges of the Joshua Green River system, which is recognized as a key natal area for the Alaskan brown bear. Some of our fall survey work up there, when we do the brown bear population work, we have upwards of 125 to 150 brown bears along a 6-mile by 18-mile survey area. This road would be within a mile and a half or two miles of that area right there. It's been well-demonstrated that large carnivores, particularly brown bears, even grizzly bears in the lower 48, when you have the element of humans introduced to the area, typically they lose.

CURWOOD: What's at stake in this debate over the building of a road here?

SIEKANIEC: Well, I think that, you know, are we willing to continue to take a notch out of our wilderness areas, out of our refuge areas, when we've had populations of different species exhibiting declines for reasons that we're totally not certain of? When do we sort of say enough is enough?

CURWOOD: Why do you think that politics has gotten involved here? Why do you think the Alaska delegation is pushing for this road right now?

SIEKANIEC: Well, I think they've been approached from the standpoint of: this is a life safety need and in the views of many people that they feel strongly that there is only one opportunity here to try and resolve some of it, and that would be a road. And I think that from the standpoint of, certainly me, being the refuge manger, that I think that you really should look at it from the standpoint of review. Are there other alternatives out there that will, one, not only meet that need but may perhaps serve the need even better than would perhaps a road through the area?

CURWOOD: Some have argued that the push for this road is an attempt to put the camel's nose under the tent, if you will, of building roads inside of national wildlife refuges -- that this would set an important precedent, and no national park or refuge would be safe after this. Do you agree with that?

SIEKANIEC: Well, I think that we have to be very, very concerned that that may be at issue here. There's lots of places that have expressed interest in having a road pushed through. You know, small wilderness areas, even in the lower 48, that would conveniently link two communities or provide access to different parts of areas of the country, roads, perhaps, through some of the areas that we're looking at for oil developments in the future, even in Alaska and so on, that would need to go through wilderness areas.

CURWOOD: And the people listening to us talk right now, if there is a single message from your perspective as a biologist and manager of this wildlife refuge that you'd like them to take away from what they're hearing now, what would it be?

SIEKANIEC: I think the single message is that we need to be very careful when we approach roads through national wildlife refuges and/or especially wilderness areas and particularly in areas that are recognized for the abundance and the types of species and birds that we actually have here in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and lagoon area. And, again, how it fits within the national wildlife refuge system as a whole -- that these lands were looked at and, you know, that weren't haphazardly picked and just thought of, oh, that would be a neat spot. They fit into a very obvious pattern of protecting breeding grounds, protecting migration habitats, and then protecting wintering habitats again. As we continue to sort of nick away at them, when are we going to say, boy, we went too far, we went one step over that line?

CURWOOD: Gary Siekaniec is a biologist and manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, out in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Thank you, sir.

SIEKANIEC: Thank you.

 

 

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