Environmental groups file new lawsuit to block new Izembek land swap deal

A view of King Cove. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KUCB)

The Wilderness Society and eight other environmental groups have filed a new lawsuit to block a road in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

For nearby King Cove, it’s the latest in a long series of legal and political hurdles dating back decades.

“We’re not surprised,” said Della Trumble of the King Cove Corporation.

She is a longtime proponent of the proposed road, roughly 12 miles through the refuge, to connect King Cove to Cold Bay and its all-weather airport. She says it’s a matter of life and death in medical emergencies. But environmental groups have always stood in the way.

Della Trumble of King Cove Corporation, advocating at the U.S. Capitol in 2014 for a road in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The lawsuit “just continues the basic concept that they don’t care about the lives of the people out here,” Trumble said. “The birds have more priority.”

The lawsuit challenges a land swap agreement U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the King Cove Corporation signed last month to create a road corridor that would be owned by the village corporation.

The conservation groups claim the swap violates environmental laws and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

It’s similar to their last lawsuit, which the groups won in March. A judge agreed the Interior Department hadn’t justified its switch from an anti-road position during the Obama administration to its current pro-road stance. This time, along with the new swap agreement, Bernhardt wrote 20 pages of justification.

The lawsuit claims the justification is still inadequate.

The Center for Biological Diversity is one of the plaintiffs. Its public lands program director, Randi Spivak, said she doesn’t prioritize birds over humans, but she said the people of King Cove have other transportation options.

“What is also important is that this refuge is internationally important for birds all over the world, and wildlife,” she said.

A road, Spivak said, wouldn’t solve all of King Cove’s transport problems.

“Look, they’re way out there in the Aleutians. Very remote area with severe weather conditions,” said Spivak, who has visited the Alaska Peninsula community. “That road would not provide guaranteed safety 365 days of the year, either.”

King Cove leaders say the road would be passable nearly all the time and is the only practical option.

The suit was filed by Trustees for Alaska, a law firm that represents environmental groups. Other plaintiffs include Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Sierra Club and Wilderness Watch.

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