June 18, 2020
Patrick Lavin

For the second time in 15 months and the third in five years, the Alaska federal district court upheld the integrity of the priceless Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the whole National Wildlife Refuge System. Emperor geese, Pacific black brant, threatened Steller’s eiders and an impressive congregation of brown bears will continue to thrive in Izembek’s protected wilderness thanks to the efforts and support of Defenders, our members and supporters, and many conservation partners.

Frosty Peak in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Kristine Sowl/USFWS

Izembek’s designated wilderness protects an extraordinary wetlands complex containing the largest eelgrass bed in the world, among other important habitat. Proponents of the road in King Cove initially backed the road because of the socio-economic benefits they envisioned the road would bring, namely fish and seafood marketing opportunities.

Pink salmon in Cold Bay, Alaska
Kristine Sowl/USFWS

The Alaska federal district  court on June 1 resoundingly rejected the Trump administration’s latest attempt to trade away congressionally designated wilderness lands to allow construction of a road through the heart of Izembek. The court found that the land exchange/road deal signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt would not further the purposes of the refuge in violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), and violated other ANILCA provisions that establish the exclusive means of authorizing roads on refuge lands. The court also found that ample, reliable transportation alternatives exist, as did a 2015 report commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fall colors in Izembek wilderness
Kristine Sowl/USFWS

Since initial attempts in the late 1990s to legislate a road failed in Congress, road proponents have claimed the road is necessary for medical and other transport out of King Cove. But King Cove has long used boat transport to Cold Bay, where flights can be taken to Anchorage. Based on the 2015 report, an ice-capable marine vessel would provide a win-win scenario for King Cove and the refuge because it would provide highly dependable transportation for the conditions experienced in the area while at the same time maintain the integrity of one of the most important wetlands complexes on the planet.

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Brant fly in front of Mount Dutton Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Image Credit
Kristine Sowl/USFWS
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Sea otters in Izembek Lagoon Izembek NWR
Image Credit
Kristine Sowl/USFWS
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Red Fox at Kinzarof Lagoon Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Image Credit
Kristine Sowl/USFWS
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Willow ptarmigan female Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Image Credit
Kristine Sowl/USFWS
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Horned puffin on a dock in Cold Bay, Alaska
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Kristine Sowl/USFWS
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Caribou Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
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Kristine Sowl/USFWS

This month’s decision follows the court’s March 2019 rejection of a similar deal signed by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in January 2018. Following that court decision, the administration swiftly decided to make another secretive and illegal run at it, issuing its latest Izembek sellout plan just three months later, in June 2019, with no public process and not even an announcement that the deal had been done.

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Brown bear in Kinzarof Lagoon Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Image Credit
Kristine Sowl/USFWS
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Arctic Ground Squirrel feeding on lupine seeds
Image Credit
Kristine Sowl/USFWS

Both recent decisions are in addition to the same court’s 2015 decision upholding Interior’s long-standing position – and 2013 determination – that the land exchange/road would undermine the purposes of the Izembek Refuge and would not be in the public interest. The first listed purpose of Izembek refuge is to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including, but not limited to, waterfowl, shorebirds, other migratory birds, brown bears and salmonids. Interior found that trading away land through the narrow isthmus at the heart of the refuge and building a road there would degrade fish and wildlife habitat and frustrate that purpose rather than further it, and the court agreed.

Izembek is an incredible place. For now, it remains protected, though there could be still more roadbuilding efforts in the future. Thank you so much for supporting Defenders – we couldn’t do it without you! 

Author(s)

Pat Lavin

Patrick Lavin

Alaska Policy Advisor
Pat Lavin joined Defenders in 2016 and provides legal and policy advocacy support for Defenders’ Alaska program.
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