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Senator Murkowski says will not back down in Alaska road fight

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (C) hands Vice President Joe Biden (2nd R) one of her campaign t-shirts after the ceremonial re-enactment
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (C) hands Vice President Joe Biden (2nd R) one of her campaign t-shirts after the ceremonial re-enactment

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee said on Wednesday she would not back down in her drive to reverse a finding by the Interior Department that blocks construction of an emergency road for a remote Alaskan community.

The fight threatens to hold up the White House's nomination of Sally Jewell as Interior Secretary.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she would use "every tool in her tool box," including placing a hold on Jewell's nomination, if the department does not allow the road to be built. The committee is slated to consider Jewell's nomination on March 7.

"This is about the safety of the people I represent," Murkowski told reporters at a briefing. "This is an issue I will not back down from."

Residents of King Cove, Alaska - population 938 as of the 2010 Census - were hoping a road would be constructed through 206 acres of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an airport in nearby Cold Bay for emergency medical evacuations.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an arm of the Interior Department, issued an environmental assessment this month saying the road would "irretrievably damage" the ecology of the refuge and its ability to support native wildlife, including grizzly bear, caribou, waterfowl and shorebirds.

Murkowski met with Jewell, currently the chief executive of outdoor retailer REI, for over an hour on Wednesday. The senator said she stressed her desire to see the road built for her constituents and said she hoped the issue would be resolved before Jewell was confirmed.

Murkowski said she would not rule out placing a hold on the nomination, which would require 60 votes to overcome in the Senate if it were not lifted.

"You don't want to threaten, but it has taken an awful lot to get the attention of the administration on this issue," Murkowski said. "We apparently now have their attention and hopefully this will move things in the right direction."

A number of residents of King Cove traveled to Washington, D.C., and are due to meet with the current Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, on Thursday.

Appearing at the briefing, residents described the sometimes treacherous conditions residents must face to get to the nearest airport. Tiny King Cove is on the Alaska Peninsula, about 625 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Residents have to travel by boat for three or more hours or be evacuated by the Coast Guard or helicopter for urgent medical attention, they said. High winds and rough seas sometimes prevent travel by boat or plane, and a road would provide reliable transportation, the residents argued. A trip by car through the refuge would take about 40 minutes.

"It saddens me to see that my people could die because Salazar cares more about a bird than about a person," said Dustin Newman, a 15-year-old high school sophomore who tearfully described seeing his grandmother being evacuated by the Coast Guard because of a health emergency.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, editing by Ros Krasny and Prudence Crowther)

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