Environmental coalition sues Interior over King Cove road deal
An Alaska law firm is leading local and national environmental groups in a lawsuit to stop a land transfer approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that would allow for a road to be built through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Attorneys for Trustees for Alaska filed suit against Zinke Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Alaska, just nine days after he signed an agreement with King Cove Corp. that would allow the Alaska Peninsula Native village corporation to trade up to 500 acres of its land for an equal-value chunk of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge — enough refuge land to build a 12-mile, single-lane road on.
Also listed as plaintiffs are Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, the Alaska Wilderness League, the National Audubon Society, The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club among other groups. They contend the road would be a major blow to critical waterfowl and caribou habitat in the refuge that separates King Cove from the neighboring community of Cold Bay.
At various times of the year the 315,000-acre Izembek Refuge is home to nearly the world’s entire population of Pacific black brant geese and other migratory birds that use it as breeding grounds and a resting place on their annual travels, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Alaska’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers insist the road is the only way to provide truly safe access to medical care for the roughly 950 residents of King Cove. Those in need of urgent medical care in King Cove currently must be flown via small plane or boated across the waters of Cold Bay to reach Cold Bay’s airport with its 10,000-foot runway that provides more reliable jet service during bad weather.
The environmental groups also stress that building the road through lands designated as wilderness — the highest classification of federal conservation lands — would set a terrible precedent not only in Alaska but nationwide. For many, it is their greatest fear about the long-proposed road.
“Breaking Izembek isn’t an option; it’s a ruse that opens the door to full-on development and we’ll fight it every step of the way,” Audubon Society CEO David Yarnold said in a formal statement. “It’s called a refuge for a reason. It’s a place where birds and other wildlife can raise their young and live the way nature intended.”
Rep. Don Young referred to worries that the road would unacceptably damage waterfowl habitat in the refuge as “pure poppycock or goose you-know-what” in a Jan. 22 call with reporters about the land swap.
In late 2013, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected land swap deal passed by Congress in 2009 after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental impact statement determined the road would irreparably damage critical waterfowl habitat in the refuge.
King Cove Native organizations and the State of Alaska subsequently sued Jewell over her decision to block the road, but the suit was dismissed in federal District Court and an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was later dropped.
That swap would have traded 206 acres of Izembek land and 1,600 federal acres outside the refuge for about 56,000 acres of state and King Cove Corp. land.
This time, Zinke invoked his authority under Section 1302(h) of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act — the same monumental public lands bill that designated nearly all of Izembek as wilderness — as the means for making the land swap. That portion of ANILCA lays out the Interior secretary’s ability to make equal-value land exchanges with Alaska Native corporations and other private groups.
While Zinke pointed to his power in Section 1302 of ANILCA, the complaint filed Wednesday argues he did not follow Title XI of the same law, which prescribes the process for developing transportation corridors through conservation lands in Alaska.
Title XI of ANILCA lays out a public process under which the Interior secretary must consult with other federal agency leaders, including the Transportation secretary, on any application to construct a transportation corridor through conservation areas. It also states that Congress must approve any corridor through wilderness-designated areas.
The complaint notes that Zinke knew the land swap would facilitate the road construction; however, whether his authority to trade land to a private group first is a legal way around the Title XI requirements is for the courts to determine.
The suit also alleges Zinke violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates the drafting of an environmental impact statement for “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” by not having an EIS written prior to approving the land swap.
The agreement also goes against the 2013 recommendation of the Fish and Wildlife Service following the EIS of that proposed land exchange.
The members of the congressional delegation said the ANILCA provisions hadn’t been used during other Republican administrations that would seemingly be more open to the plan because key officials in President George W. Bush’s administration, for example, opposed the road through Izembek.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].