A federal judge ruling in the latest lawsuit over a proposed road between Cold Bay and King Cove, on the Alaska Peninsula, has vacated a proposed land exchange that would allow for 11 miles of a one-lane gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick ruled on June 1 that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s decision to enter into a land exchange agreement with the King Cove Corp. on June 28, 2019 constituted an unlawful action in violation of the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
“We are thrilled the court rejected this corrupt and illegal land exchange, finding that it is contrary to the purposes of Izembek and ANILCA, and that such an exchange could not be done without congressional approval,” said Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees of Alaska. “We hope this is last time we need to ask a court to reject such an exchange.”
Officials with the King Cove Corp. aren’t giving up, though, on their long-term quest for the road.
“We are definitely not happy,” said Della Trumble, president of the King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation. “We’re totally disheartened, [but] we won’t give up.” The issue is now being reviewed, and then “we’ll see where we go on it from here,” she said.
Alaska’s congressional delegation last week issued a statement vowing to continue to fight for the road between King Cove and the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. “I continue to believe the Department of the Interior has full authority under existing law to complete this land exchange, that the federal government has an obligation to protect local residents’ health and safety, and that a gravel, one-lane life-saving road is the best way to meaningfully accomplish that,” said
Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “I refuse to give up on helping the people of King Cove.”
The congressional delegation said that between December 2013, when the Obama administration rejected a congressionally approved plan to allow for the road, through October 2019, that King Cove had 113 emergency medevacs, including 33 by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Residents of King Cove, home of a large Peter Pan Seafoods cannery, have been fighting for years to complete the road from Cold Bay and King Cove that would make it possible to drive from King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay, to allow for transport to Anchorage in cases of medical emergency. In good weather small aircraft can transport people between Cold Bay’s all weather airport and King Cove, but in inclement weather, which often occurs, it is unsafe for the smaller aircraft to fly and the only option for people needing to get to Anchorage for critical medical care is a three hour ride to Cold Bay on a fishing boat.
The small gravel airstrip in King Cove is typically closed more than 100 days each year because of strong winds turbulence, fog, rain and other weather conditions.
The largest point of contention between King Cove residents and environmental entities is that the road would go through an area of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Area residents born and raised on the Alaska Peninsula note that Alaska Native people have hunted and fished in the area for decades. During World War II, U.S. military vehicles operated throughout the area with no lasting damage to the wildlife or environment. Furthermore, they note, in advance of the federal decision to include the Izembek National Wildlife Range as a national wildlife refuge through ANILCA, they were not consulted or given the opportunity to comment on that action.
An area of the refuge known as Izembek Lagoon has one of the largest beds of eelgrass, an important food source for Pacific Brant geese, endangered Steller’s eider sea ducks and other migratory birds. Environmental entities contend that the road might have adverse impact on
that critical food source.
On July 24, 2019, the King Cove Corp. reached agreement with the Interior Department for a land exchange of King Cove Corp. property that would allow for some 11 miles of road through historic military road areas of the refuge.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that despite a 2013 conclusion by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service that the road would cause damage to the Izembek watershed that area residents were also important. “I choose to place greater weight on the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home,” Bernhardt wrote in an email. “It is not a decision I take lightly; it is one that I believe best serves the public interest my responsibilities, and humanity.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, despite concerns that the road would cause damage to the watershed, continues to promote hunting and fishing opportunities, particularly for brown bear and waterfowl, right in the refuge. The federal agency, in an online guide to the refuge, speaks to hunting opportunities for brown bear and waterfowl, saying that fall waterfowl hunting is “spectacular” and that “hardy wetland enthusiasts can pursue light and dark geese (Canada geese, black brant) dabbling ducks (mallard, pintail) diving ducks and sea ducks.”
Several environmental entities, with legal representation by Trustees for Alaska, have to date been successful in their battle to stop the proposed road through the refuge. Trustees filed a lawsuit in January 2020 on behalf of nine environmental groups, including Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska Wilderness League, Wilderness Watch, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Refuge Association and the Center for Biological Diversity.
“For the second time, the court has told the road proponents that invading the Izembek Wilderness and damaging the biological heart of the Refuge to build an unnecessary and expensive road is unacceptable,” said David C. Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. “Let us hope that this decades-long, misguided effort is finally over, and the natural habitat and wildlife that depend on the Izembek Refuge will continue to be protected in perpetuity.”