Refuge supporters challenge administration on road through Izembek

By Laura Bies

Conservation groups are concerned about the effect of a new road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. ©Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

The National Wildlife Refuge Association and partners filed suit in federal district court against the administration after Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt’s recent decision to approve a land swap between the federal government and the Alaska Native King Cove Corporation. The agreement, which would trade land owned by King Cove Corp. with land on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, would allow for the construction of a 12-mile gravel road through the refuge connecting the remote town of King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay.

The road has been a point of contention for many years, with supporters of the construction arguing that the road is needed for the health and safety of King Cove’s residents. Those opposed to the road are concerned about the effect of its construction and use on the wilderness between the Izembek and Kingaroy lagoons, which is internationally recognized for its eelgrass beds and a vital stopover for many migratory bird species.

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the proposed exchange in 2013, after four years of analysis, stating that the road would cause irreversible adverse effects to the refuge — including designated wilderness areas — and that reasonable and viable transportation alternatives existed. Then, in early 2018, former Secretary Ryan Zinke approved the exchange. But soon after, a coalition of conservation organizations filed suit, challenging the administration’s decision.

Earlier this year, a federal court blocked the proposed exchange, holding that the current administration had not sufficiently explained its decision to approve the swap after the previous administration analyzed and rejected the proposal. The administration appealed the court’s decision in March.

Since then, Interior officials have developed a new land swap deal, with additional supporting analysis to address the court’s concerns. Bernhardt signed that agreement in early July, but the Interior did not publicly announce the signing. Two weeks after signing the new agreement, the administration dropped its appeal of the March decision.

The current suit alleges that the new agreement, like the one invalidated in March, violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. It also alleges that the administration still has not sufficiently explained its decision to change course and reverse its position on the swap. The plaintiffs asked the court to invalidate the recent agreement.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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