Court halts road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

A federal judge halted a proposed land exchange last week in Alaska that would allow for the construction of a 12-mile gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The agreement would trade land owned by Alaska Native King Cove Corporation with land on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and would allow a road through the refuge to connect the remote town of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay. Most of the refuge, including the area the road would cut through, is designated as wilderness — activities such as road building are prohibited on wilderness.

The court order found that the land exchange violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the 1980 law that established the Izembek refuge. The judge questioned the administration’s decision to allow the land exchange after 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 National Wildlife Refuge Association and partners filed suit in federal district court last year after the Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the proposed land exchange. A previous land swap, approved by former Secretary Ryan Zinke in early 2018, was invalidated by a federal court in early 2019, which held that the current administration had not sufficiently explained its decision to approve the swap after the previous administration analyzed and rejected the proposal.

The new proposal contained additional supporting analysis to address the court’s concerns. In this additional information, Secretary Bernhardt stated that “a land exchange between the United States and [King Cove Corp.] as described above comports with the purposes of [the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] and ANILCA because it strikes the proper balance between protection of scenic, natural, cultural, and environmental values and provides opportunities for the long-term social and physical well-being of the Alaska Native people.”

The judge stated that Interior needs a “substantial justification” for changing course, especially since the new agreement “requires making factual findings that directly contradict the agency’s prior factual findings.” The administration’s new justification for the swap “offers no new information or data to justify his contrary finding that the value of the added acreage to the refuge system counters the negative effects of a road through Izembek,” the court order said.

Interior has not yet announced whether it intends to appeal the decision.

Header Image: A federal court has invalidated an agreement to build a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: USFWS Alaska Region