Biden administration supports refuge-splitting road in Alaska

The Biden administration is supporting an effort to build a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

In 2019, then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt proposed a land exchange that would allow for the construction of a 12-mile gravel road through the refuge, but a federal court decision last year halted that land swap. Last year, the Trump administration appealed the federal court decision.

The Biden administration was expected to drop the appeal, as it has in other environmental cases pursued by the previous administration, such as the lawsuit over the Migratory Bird Treaty Act interpretation. But in this case, the administration filed a brief in support of the government’s appeal last week.

The exchange in question would swap land owned by the Alaska Native King Cove Corporation, which is the local village government, with land on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. That trade would permit construction of a road through the refuge to connect the remote town of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay. That connection would provide King Cove residents better access to medical care in the case of an emergency. Most of the refuge, including the area the road would cut through, is designated as wilderness, where activities such as road building are prohibited under federal law.

Last year’s court order halting the land swap found that it violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the 1980 law that established the Izembek refuge. In that ruling, the judge questioned the administration’s decision to allow the land exchange given that the previous administration found in 2013 that the road would cause significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources on the refuge and was therefore not in the public interest.

The ongoing lawsuit began when the National Wildlife Refuge Association and partners filed suit in federal district court in 2019, after then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the proposed land exchange. Earlier that year, a federal court had invalidated a previous land swap, approved by former Secretary Ryan Zinke in early 2018, because the government had not sufficiently explained its decision to approve the swap after previously rejecting the proposal.

The brief filed last week argues that the administration did not violate federal law in placing “greater weight on the welfare of the people of King Cove, and less weight on environmental harms, than it had previously.”

Supporters of the road argue that it is needed to provide reliable access to medical care for the approximately 1,000 residents of the town of King Cove, in southern Alaska. Conservation groups are concerned about the effects of the road on Pacific black brants (Branta bernicla), emperor geese (Anser canagicus) and other wildlife.

Header Image: The Biden administration has appealed a federal court ruling halting a controversial land swap, which would allow an emergency road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Val Urban/USFWS