ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — Trustees for Alaska, together with eight national and state conservation organizations, filed a federal suit Wednesday challenging a Jan. 22 land swap agreement between the U.S. Department of the Interior and an Alaska Native corporation.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, attempts to halt the Trump administration from trading up to 500 acres on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge with lands owned by nearby King Cove Corporation to build what King Cove villagers say would be a life-saving road between the Native village and the nearby all-weather airport in Cold Bay.
The King Cove Corporation is an Alaska Native corporation representing the interests of the Agdaagux and Belkofski tribes, along with the community of King Cove. Occupying an isolated area on the Alaska Peninsula, the community was established in 1911 to support year-round commercial fishing and seafood processing at the Peter Pan Seafoods salmon cannery.
According to a Jan. 22 Interior Department statement, 18 deaths have been attributed to the lack of road access, resulting from either plane crashes or an inability to receive timely medical treatment. In a community without a hospital or a doctor, King Cove residents must fly 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures.
Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit law firm representing the conservation groups, maintains that the land exchange violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act by failing to protect an important wildlife area. Building a road through the refuge would harm wildlife and destroy congressionally designated wilderness, according to the 22-page complaint.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club.
“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,” Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement.
“Considering Izembek’s importance to birds and other wildlife, decisions about the Refuge should be held to the highest standards of transparency and proper process. But when the Interior Department cut out the heart of Izembek, it also cut the American public out of the decision-making process. So, we’re asking the court to determine the lawfulness of this dubious deal,” Audubon Alaska’s policy director, Susan Culliney, added.
“Breaking Izembek isn’t an option; this is a ruse that opens the door to full-on development and we’ll fight it every step of the way,” Yarnold said.
The conservation groups say the construction of a road through the heart of the refuge would set a dangerous precedent, jeopardizing refuges and wilderness areas across the nation and undermining bedrock environmental and conservation laws such as the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The Trustees warned Zinke in a letter Wednesday that it intends to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act as well.
The Wilderness Society Alaska Regional Director Nicole Whittington-Evans took issue with the signing of the agreement in Washington, DC in Interior Secretary Zinke’s office during the recent government shutdown.
"The Trump administration’s backroom deal for a land exchange ignores Interior’s previous science-based decisions against the proposed road. This illegal deal is just another step toward the administration’s goal of turning over America’s public lands to development interests,” Whittington-Evans said in a statement.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Representative Don Young, R-Alaska, have championed the land swap, claiming the road is needed for medical transport.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined that viable non-road alternatives exist to meet the community’s needs while protecting a globally important refuge and its wildlife,” Whittington-Evans stated.
Driving across the refuge on the proposed road from King Cove to Cold Bay would take significantly longer than taking a boat or plane, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ assessment. The area experiences frequent severe weather that would render the road impassable and dangerous, and the corps concluded that marine transport via ferry is the most dependable mode of transportation, reliable more than 99 percent of the time.
“Izembek is one of the most important wildlife refuges on the planet. A road would do irreparable damage that no land swap could begin to heal,” Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Unleashing the bulldozers on this incredible place would destroy vital feeding grounds for millions of migrating birds from three continents. Impartial experts have repeatedly rejected this destructive project, for good reason.”
“Every president since Eisenhower has protected Izembek, until the Trump administration,” Spivak added. “There are other, safer options to address King Cove’s needs. Trump and Zinke have repeatedly ignored these options in favor of narrow political interests. It’s another example of their relentless attack on public lands.”
Representative Don Young disagrees. “I have been working with the residents of King Cove for over 30 years to help them get a life-saving road to the community of Cold Bay. This is a great day not only for King Cove, but for all of Alaska,” Young said at the land swap signing.
“In 2013, Sally Jewell decided that birds were more important than people, and today we finally have a Secretary who takes the life and death of Alaska Natives seriously,” he added. “I want to thank Secretary Zinke on behalf of all Alaskans for his work in getting the King Cove road approved. I look forward to working with him on other issues for our great state.”
"Above all, the federal government's job is to keep our people safe and respect our treaty commitments with Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Today I am proudly fulfilling both of those missions," said Secretary Zinke. "Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that's just wrong. The people of King Cove have been stewarding the land and wildlife for thousands of years and I am confident that working together we will be able to continue responsible stewardship while also saving precious lives."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees management of national wildlife refuges, was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Zinke and the Department of the Interior.
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