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News / Nation & World

Interior secretary withdraws land exchange but signals support for road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

By Iris Samuels, Anchorage Daily News
Published: March 18, 2023, 5:43am

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday signaled her support for a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that has been at the center of a decades-long battle between the largely Indigenous people of King Cove, who say it will provide lifesaving access to a Cold Bay runway, and environmental groups who say a road will harm the refuge.

But at the same time, Haaland announced the agency is withdrawing a land exchange authorized in 2019 by the Interior Department under former President Donald Trump, between the department and King Cove Corp.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided in November with environmental groups against the swap, and Haaland said that rather than continue the legal battle, she would launch a review process to consider different options for a land swap that would be needed to construct a road between the two communities.

Haaland visited King Cove, a community with less than 1,000 residents, nearly a year ago to meet with those who are advocating for a road to access Cold Bay’s World War II-era jet runway, where lifesaving medical flights can land and take off.

Conservation groups who oppose the road have argued that it would support commercial interests and harm migrating waterfowl and other wildlife that depend on the 310,000-acre refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

“The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities. I reject that binary choice,” said Haaland, the first Indigenous Interior secretary.

In a written statement, Haaland went on to say that “respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening — really listening — to Tribal communities.”

“I have instructed my team to immediately launch a process to review previous proposals for a land exchange, rooted in a commitment to engagement in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation with Tribes, to protecting the national wildlife refuge system, and to upholding the integrity of ANILCA’s subsistence and conservation purposes,” she said.

The debate about the road goes back to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, signed in 1980 to designate more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska for conservation. According to a statement released Tuesday, the Interior Department determined that the land exchange authorized under the Trump administration contained several procedural flaws and did not take into account “potential effects on subsistence uses and habitat.”

The Interior Department intends to initiate a separate environmental analysis and weigh a proposed 2013 land exchange considered by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell under the administration of former President Barack Obama. Jewell had decided against a previous proposed land exchange in 2013.

That proposal would have transferred approximately 200 acres within the refuge to the state of Alaska for a single-lane gravel road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. The proposal would not have allowed the road to be used for commercial purposes. In exchange, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would receive approximately 43,000 acres of land owned by the state to be designated for wilderness conservation, as well as approximately 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp. In addition, the King Cove Corp. would relinquish 5,430 acres of selected lands within the Izembek Refuge and Izembek Wilderness boundary.

The proposal authorized under the Trump administration did not prohibit commercial use of the road, authorized gravel mining within the refuge and designated less land coming for conservation as part of the exchange.

The Wilderness Society, a conservation group, celebrated the decision to rescind the Trump-era land exchange.

In a statement, Wilderness Society Alaska Senior Regional Director Karlin Itchoak said that the decision has implications for other lands protected under ANILCA.

“If left in place, this illegal land exchange would have created a devastating precedent threatening all conservation designations under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,” Itchoak said.