The Department of the Interior issued a Notice of Intent today to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to reassess options for travel between King Cove and Cold Bay, Alaska, near the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Past road proposals cut through the designated wilderness and the refuge’s internationally recognized ecological habitat. The NOI suggests that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has the authority to trade away congressionally designated wilderness in Izembek to allow a road to be built. Such authority would implicate all of Alaska’s protected lands, subjecting them to similar trades to allow development projects.
On reading the NOI to initiate a new environmental analysis, Nicole Whittington-Evans, Defenders of Wildlife Alaska Program Director issued the following statement:
“The integrity of protections for over 150 million acres designated and governed by the Alaska National Interest Conservation Lands Act (ANILCA) and subsistence are at risk as DOI considers a land exchange to allow a road in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge wilderness. No Secretary has the authority to undermine Congress’s historic protection of Alaska’s most treasured public lands by simply trading them away to developers. Studies repeatedly show that marine transportation alternatives are available to meet the needs of the people of King Cove without impacting the pristine wilderness of Izembek. We anticipate this review will reach the same conclusion.”
At stake are safeguards that make ANILCA one of history’s most outstanding conservation achievements, protecting both lands and the people who live there. This includes more than 150 million acres of designated park, preserve, refuge, wilderness and other lands; and, protections for subsistence, the customary and traditional uses of wild, renewable resources by rural Alaska residents.
As recognized previously by President Carter:
“ANILCA is no ordinary statute... It is one of the most exceptional pieces of conservation legislation enacted by our great Nation or any Nation. In sheer magnitude, it stands alone, establishing conservation mandates for over 100 million acres of federal public lands and preserving the rights of Alaska Native and rural residents to continue to undertake subsistence activities on those land.” And further, “Our great nation has never before or since preserved so much of America’s natural and cultural heritage on such a remarkable scale.”
In enacting ANILCA, Congress never debated or remotely contemplated the notion that future Interior Secretaries could undo this accomplishment by simply trading away the protected lands to private parties to allow roads or other development projects. Given the grand conservation and subsistence purposes of the statute, such a provision would have drawn significant scrutiny indeed.
If Secretary Haaland conducts a land exchange for the purpose of constructing a road through Congressionally designated Wilderness, the precedent will be set for future Secretaries to unilaterally trade away any other protected federal lands in Alaska to allow all manner of development and extractive activities, not just road building.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, long internationally recognized for its protected habitat, is of such high quality that for many species, no exchange lands will mitigate their loss.
Izembek encompasses some of the northern hemisphere’s most astonishingly rich wildlife diversity and wilderness values. Maintaining intact habitat and low levels of human disturbance at Izembek supports tremendous biodiversity with both high-density populations such as bears and wolves as well as species in decline due to deteriorating habitat elsewhere in their life cycle.
These include virtually the entire world’s populations of Pacific Brant and emperor Geese, important subsistence resources for Alaska Native residents living along the migratory path of these birds. As well as a significant portion of the world’s “threatened” population of Steller’s Eiders, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997, are among the many hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that rely on Izembek.
Izembek is the first wetlands area in North America to be placed on the List of Wetlands of International Importance. It’s also listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA) of global significance and qualifies as a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network Site.