In a win for conservation, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska vacated the Trump administration’s agreement to trade away internationally recognized, congressionally designated wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to a private corporation. The administration’s illegal land deal, signed by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in January, aimed to remove federal land from public ownership to facilitate construction of a costly, unnecessary and destructive road through the heart of the refuge.
Negotiated behind closed doors without any public review or environmental analysis, the land exchange would have stripped vital protections from essential habitat for migratory birds, brown bears, caribou and salmon. The court’s decision to reject the nefarious deal came in response to a lawsuit filed by Defenders of Wildlife and eight partner organizations.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“Wildlife won in court today, and so did all Americans. This decision preserves congressionally designated, globally important wilderness wetlands from the Trump administration’s rash and illegal scheme to bulldoze a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.”
On January 22, 2018, the Department of the Interior signed an agreement to trade away internationally recognized, congressionally designated wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to allow construction of a destructive and unnecessary road. The land exchange agreement allows for commercial use of the road with only minor restrictions that lack a viable enforcement mechanism.
Defenders of Wildlife filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year for records related to the Trump administration’s consideration of a land exchange and construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. We received more than 600 documents, including evidence that the Interior Department was pursuing a controversial land trade with King Cove Corporation to facilitate construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Trustees for Alaska represented Defenders of Wildlife in the lawsuit, along with Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Watch.
The Department of the Interior, led by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, went to great lengths to ensure this land exchange occurred, including expediting and eliminating public engagement in the process. An email written by a Fish and Wildlife Service official confirmed that “the land exchange idea and ‘push’ is from the Secretary’s office.”
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a globally recognized wetland and coastal habitat for iconic wildlife, including brown bears, caribou, salmon and hundreds of species of migratory birds. Its irreplaceable wetlands are so special that in 1986 they became one of the first wetland areas in the United States to be designated a “Wetland of International Importance” pursuant to the Ramsar Convention. One of America’s most unique and ecologically significant wildlife refuges, this extraordinary landscape in Alaska is almost entirely designated as wilderness.
Tens of thousands of waterfowl, seabirds and shorebirds from throughout the Pacific Flyway rely on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for nesting and feeding. Each fall the refuge shelters nearly the world’s entire population of Pacific black brant as they gorge themselves on the refuge’s expansive eelgrass beds in preparation for their nonstop migration to wintering grounds in Mexico. The refuge also provides critical habitat for the Steller’s eider, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge lies between the small Alaskan villages of King Cove and Cold Bay. The community of King Cove and road proponents claim that a road through Izembek is needed to assure safe transport to Cold Bay’s larger airstrip in the event of a medical emergency. However, commercial interests have been a driving force behind the road proposal for decades, and a primary purpose of the road is to provide ground transportation for workers and products of the Peter Pan Seafood company.
American taxpayers have already spent more than $50 million to provide a safe, reliable medical response system to the King Cove community in lieu of the damaging road. In 1998, the federal government allocated more than $37 million to upgrade access to quality medical care for the people living in the village, and then paid an additional $13 million in support of that commitment. King Cove subsequently elected to voluntarily remove from service the state-of-the-art $9 million hovercraft ambulance that was purchased with the federal funds, which successfully performed every medical evacuation to Cold Bay while in operation. The road proposal would cost an estimated $30-40 million more, resulting in a final bill to the American taxpayer of at least $80 million, or about $89,000 per King Cove resident.
In addition, the proposed road would present its own safety concerns and potential for loss of life. The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is subject to frequent violent winter storms, making travel along the proposed route extremely dangerous for significant periods of time. Moreover, other viable transportation options exist: a 2015 study by the Army Corps of Engineers evaluated non-road transportation alternatives and concluded that a marine ferry option would be reliable approximately 99 percent of the time, at a cost comparable to the road.
The Interior Department has studied this issue exhaustively and repeatedly concluded that the road should not be constructed. In 2013, after a comprehensive four-year analysis including consideration of more than 70,000 public comments, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell reaffirmed that a road through Izembek refuge would irrevocably damage natural resources and rejected a proposed exchange offering the refuge more than 56,000 acres of land for a road right of way. In 2015, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Secretary’s decision to protect the refuge.
Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.