The Biden administration announced late Tuesday that it would reverse a Trump-era land swap deal facilitating the construction, in an Alaska wilderness area, of a potentially life-saving road opposed by environmental groups.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) withdrew the land exchange — which had been finalized by former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in 2019 and aggressively defended in court by the Biden administration — and explained that it contained procedural flaws and wasn’t consistent with agency policy. DOI Secretary Deb Haaland said the agency would initiate another environmental analysis of the proposal as part of President Biden’s conservation agenda.
“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,” Haaland said in a statement. “I reject that binary choice.”
“I am a lifelong conservationist, and I believe deeply in the need to protect our lands and waters and honor our obligations to Tribal Nations,” she added.
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The proposed short, gravel, one-lane road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Alaska, connecting the small community in King Cove to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay. Environmentalists have repeatedly argued a road would threaten the wilderness and wildlife habitat of the refuge which was established in 1960.
But there are currently no roads connecting the village to Cold Bay and proponents of the project have argued it was required to ensure mostly-Indigenous residents have greater access to emergency services. The small airstrip in King Cove is highly-dependent on good weather, restricting residents’ access to emergency services.
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“While Secretary Haaland claims that she wants to consider alternative land exchanges, that will push the entire process back to square one and place the lives of King Cove residents at risk today,” Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday. “The fact is her decision to halt the land swap increases the likelihood that a resident in King Cove won’t be able to receive life-saving medical treatment in time due to bad weather at the villages airstrip.”
“The 11-mile road from King Cove to Cold Bay would connect residents in King Cove to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay and would save lives,” he continued. “It makes zero sense that Secretary Haaland would want to deprive Alaskans of the life-saving services the road would provide access to.”
In addition to Dunleavy, the road has received support from state lawmakers and leading Indigenous groups like the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska Federation of Natives. Haaland said in her statement Tuesday that she wanted to ensure the DOI was “listening – really listening – to Tribal communities” and would launch a nation-to-nation consultation with tribes.
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Constructing a road through the wildlife refuge, though, has been a subject of intense debate for decades. After it was rejected multiple times in the 1980s and 1990s, the King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native corporation, lobbied Congress to pass legislation mandating a formal review of the road in 2009, according to a report from Harvard University’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.
But, in 2013, the Obama administration again rejected the road proposal despite concerns from locals, noting the environmental impacts it would have. The Trump administration reversed that decision five years later, signing two agreements with King Cove Corp. to swap land the group owned with refuge land where the road would be constructed.
In 2020, a federal district court rejected the agreement after environmental groups filed a legal challenge. The Trump administration then appealed the decision and the DOI issued a memo asserting his authority to ensure access to private or state land.
After the Biden administration assumed office in 2021, the Department of Justice continued defending the land swap agreements before the appeals panel which reversed the lower court decision and upheld the road project in March 2022. The court, however, granted a request in November from environmental groups to rehear the case, a decision the Biden administration argued against.
“We are grateful the Ninth Circuit has chosen to rehear this case and reconsider a deeply flawed decision,” Defenders of Wildlife’s President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark said on Nov. 11. “Defenders of Wildlife is optimistic that the court will ultimately reject this illegal land exchange and protect the irreplaceable wilderness and wildlife habitat of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.”
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