“Despite the frustrating setback, this fight is far from over. We will use every tool available to protect the refuge and its globally significant lands and wildlife for the benefit of all who love and appreciate the great outdoors.”
A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling today threatens the health of the land, water and wildlife in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge by allowing the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to trade away public land and congressionally designated Wilderness to a private corporation for the purpose of building a commercial road.
“We are seriously troubled by the court’s decision to move forward with a nefarious deal to trade away Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO. “Despite the frustrating setback, this fight is far from over. We will use every tool available to protect the refuge and its globally significant lands and wildlife for the benefit of all who love and appreciate the great outdoors.”
Two previous District Court decisions found that the Department of the Interior (DOI) could not use the land exchange provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to gut a National Wildlife Refuge and congressionally designated Wilderness Area. The Biden administration defended the Trump-era land exchange agreement on appeal.
“The failure of Ninth Circuit to uphold the District Court’s decision to halt the proposed desecration of the Izembek Refuge Wilderness and wildlife that rely on it allows Interior to give away public lands to serve special interests at the expense of the American people,” said David C. Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. “We are deeply disappointed that this decision reinstates the unethical efforts by the Trump administration to circumvent decades of legislation and regulations enacted to protect public lands and natural areas from destructive developments and preserve them for the benefit of all Americans. We will use every means at our disposal to continue the fight to save the Izembek Refuge.”
Commercial and private interests have advocated for a road for decades. Under the Trump administration, DOI made repeated attempts to make way for that road by trading away land in Izembek Refuge designated as Wilderness by Congress. A court ruling in March 2019 voided the first land swap, and DOI tried again in June 2020. DOI appealed the 2020 Court decision and the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in August 2021.
The Ninth Circuit Court in a 2–1 decision reversed the District Court, holding that
Interior did not violate ANILCA because ANILCA’s protections would no longer apply with the completion of the exchange and the lands are then private. It further erred in finding that ANILCA’s purposes exclude social and economic concerns and that the Secretary has broad discretion to reverse course on policy decisions.
“This dangerous ruling allows an unelected Interior Secretary to overrule Congress by simply giving away lands designated as Wilderness,” said Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska. “This is not about medical access. Other transportation options have been studied that will provide King Cove the medical access it seeks. No, this is about commercial corporate interests and the disregard for the laws that protect our nation’s lands, waters, and wildlife. We and our clients will continue to fight this illegal land exchange to protect Izembek’s irreplaceable values and all of Alaska’s protected public lands.”
The case is now remanded to the District Court.
Law firm Trustees for Alaska represents nine groups in the lawsuit: Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Watch.