New Alaskan Land Swap Called Just as Illegal as the First One

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. (Kristine Sowl photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — Nine conservation groups sued the Trump administration in federal court Wednesday, challenging a land swap between the Department of Interior and the Alaska Native King Cove Corporation that would put a road through the heart of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is near the head of the Aleutian Islands archipelago. At 492 square miles, it is the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It was designated as Wilderness in 1980, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

For decades residents of King Cove, a village just outside the refuge boundaries, have been seeking a land connection through the refuge to the Cold Bay all-weather airport to gain better access to medical emergency flights. In 2013 the co-defendant U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge, concluded that a road would cause irrevocable damage to the Izembek watershed. Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Department of the Interior.

“The Department of Interior has attempted an end run around the recent federal court decision that halted its plans to desecrate the Izembek Refuge Wilderness and its wildlife,” David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, said in a statement.

“This new backroom deal adds to a long series of actions by Interior to give away public lands to serve special interests at the expense of the American people. We are disappointed by this continuation of the illegal and unethical efforts of the current administration to circumvent decades of legislation and regulations enacted to protect public lands and natural areas from destructive developments and preserve them for the benefit of all Americans. We will use every means at our disposal to continue the fight to save the Izembek Refuge.”

A federal judge in March vacated a land exchange proposal involving the same land and the same parties. But recently appointed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who was confirmed on April 11, agreed to a new land swap on July 12. Conservation organizations say that the new deal was struck without public input or knowledge.

They says it differs from the earlier proposal by not limiting the road to health, safety and noncommercial uses, making it similar to the previous, court-rejected agreement.

Represented by Trustees for Alaska in Anchorage, the nine plaintiff groups — including Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society and the Center for Biological Diversity — say Interior cannot use the land exchange provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to gut a national wildlife refuge and circumvent public process, environmental review and congressional approval.

They also say the latest land exchange violates the National Environmental Policy Act and fails to justify the agency’s reversal of an Obama-era decision rejecting a land exchange.

“This deal violates the same laws as the first one, and we’re prepared to continue the legal fight to protect this irreplaceable wilderness,” said Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska.

“This is another Trump administration public land giveaway that breaks multiple laws and dishonors the public processes that go into protecting the health of the lands, waters and wildlife of the National Refuge and Wilderness System.”

Bernhardt, in a statement last month, said the needs of King Cove residents were more important. “I choose to place greater weight on the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home,” Bernhardt said.

In a Wednesday letter, Trustees for Alaska also notified Bernhardt of their intent to sue for Endangered Species Act violations related to the land swap.

“Spending millions to build a road through federal wilderness would be a bad deal for taxpayers and a bad deal for the environment,” Alaska Wilderness League conservation director Kristen Miller said. “Yet the Bernhardt Interior Department continues to try and sidestep bedrock environmental laws like the Wilderness Act and the federal court system to satisfy political desires and commercial interests.

Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, also weighed in on the swap. “Bernhardt’s shady backroom deal is just as illegal as the land swap a judge already rejected,” Spivak said. “Izembek is a vital wildlife refuge that feeds millions of birds from three continents. You can’t swap land here for anywhere else because there’s nothing else like it.”

The other plaintiffs are the Alaska Wilderness League, the Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Sierra Club, and Wilderness Watch.

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