Defenders of Wildlife has filed suit in U.S. District Court to block the Interior Department’s decision to trade away internationally recognized, wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to a private corporation. A U.S. District Court judge for the District of Alaska
struck down a similar land exchange deal developed by the Trump administration to facilitate the construction of a road through this globally significant and protected wetlands complex. The Department of the Interior appealed the district court’s judgment, but dismissed its appeal in mid-July without informing the court, the parties or the public that it had entered into a new land exchange agreement with King Cove.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“The Trump Administration is attempting yet again to go behind Americans’ backs to carve an illegal road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. This backroom deal would destroy vital habitat for brown bears, caribou and key migratory bird species, including virtually the entire population of Pacific brant, emperor geese and federally listed threatened Steller’s eiders, for an unnecessary road. We are returning to the federal court that struck down the administration’s previous scheme to ask it to once again protect the integrity of this magnificent refuge.”
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a globally important wetland and coastal habitat for iconic wildlife, including brown bears, caribou, salmon and hundreds of species of migratory birds. Recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance,” this extraordinary landscape in Alaska is also 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 hosts nearly the world’s entire population of Pacific black brant as they gorge themselves on the eelgrass beds in preparation for their nonstop migration to wintering grounds in Mexico. The refuge also provides critical habitat for three species listed under the Endangered Species Act: endangered Steller
sea lions, threatened northern sea otters, and the threatened Steller’s eider.
In 2017, following President Trump’s election, King Cove Corporation requested that DOI agree to a land exchange to facilitate construction of the road between King Cove and Cold Bay. 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 allowed for commercial use of the road with only minor restrictions that lack a viable enforcement mechanism. The Department of the Interior, led by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, went to great lengths to implement the land exchange, 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.”
Represented by Trustees for Alaska, Defenders and other groups, including Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Wilderness League, and Sierra Club, filed suit in federal district court in Alaska challenging the land exchange as a violation of the
Administrative Procedure Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). On March 29, 2019, the federal court voided the Trump administration’s first attempted land exchange to facilitate road construction through the refuge, finding that the Department of the Interior failed to explain adequately its radical change of position from Secretary Jewell’s decision regarding the legality and propriety of the road. The court did not reach plaintiffs’ other claims that the exchange violated multiple laws. The Department of the Interior appealed the district court’s judgment but dismissed its appeal in July 2019 without informing the court or the parties that it had entered into a new land exchange agreement with King Cove.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is located between the small Alaskan villages of King Cove and Cold Bay. The community of King Cove claims 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, analyses have repeatedly found that there are viable non-road transportation alternatives available. Commercial interests are a
driving force behind the road proposal, as indicated in the wish-list of “Alaska’s Initial Priority Infrastructure Projects” that then-Alaska Governor Bill Walker sent to President Trump and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in May 2017, and which the Trump administration indicated in its first attempt to build a road through the refuge. The real purpose of the road for some proponents is to provide ground transportation for workers and products in the commercial fishing industry.
American taxpayers have already spent over $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 over $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. The Aleutians East Borough (AEB) used $9 million of those funds to purchase a state-of-the-art hovercraft ambulance, which successfully performed every desired medical evacuation from King Cove to Cold Bay while in operation. Nonetheless, AEB removed the hovercraft from service in 2012. The road proposal would cost over $30 million more, resulting in a final bill to the American taxpayer of in excess of $80 million, excluding costly road maintenance.
In addition, the proposed road would likely cost lives, even though other viable transportation options exist. The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is subject to frequent violent winter storms, making travel along the proposed route extremely dangerous. Traveling the road would likely be treacherous for much of the year, and sometimes impassable, due to seasonal icing, high winds, blizzards and avalanche conditions. A 2015 study by the Army Corps of Engineers evaluated non-road transportation alternatives for King Cove. The study 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 should be rejected. In 2015, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Secretary’s decision to protect the refuge.