Long-running dispute over Izembek road to get another review in court-ordered rehearing

A flock of seabirds flying over a lagoon
Pacific black brant fly above Izembek Lagoon at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on Dec. 27, 2013. The refuge is used as a migratory stop for nearly the entire global population of Pacific black brant. For decades, a debate has raged over a plan to put a road through a portion of the refuge. Izembek’s importance to migratory birds is invoked by road opponents, while road supporters say the project is needed to help residents of the nearby village of King Cove. (Photo by Kristine Sowl/U.S. Fish and Wildlfie Service)

A back-and-forth legal saga over a proposed road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska took another turn on Thursday when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a rehearing of the issue, a move that could possibly squash the project.

The case involves a land trade that would enable construction of a gravel road through a section of designated wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Alaska. Thursday’s three-sentence order from the full panel of the circuit court vacated a March ruling by a three-judge appeals panel that would have helped clear the way for road construction.

The 2-1 ruling found that the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior was acting lawfully when it approved a swap of land between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local village Native corporation, the King Cove Corp. Under the deal, which is currently in limbo, corporate-owned coastal land would be added to the refuge in exchange for a stretch of land within the refuge that would be used for the approximately 12-mile road.

Residents of King Cove, an Aleut village of about 850 people, have argued for decades that they need a road across the refuge to reach a jetliner-capable airport in Cold Bay, an even smaller community to the west. The Cold Bay airport, now operated by the state, is a World War II legacy; its 10,000-foot runway is one of the longest in Alaska and is sometimes used by jetliners that divert for emergency landings.

Opponents of the road and the land trade that would enable its construction argue that the road would damage globally important bird and wildlife habitat. They say the deal would set a bad precedent for all national wildlife refuges. They also argue that emergency evacuation services can be provided in alternative ways. Additionally, many have said they believe the road’s true purpose is commercial, to benefit segments of the seafood industry.

The debate over the land trade and the road it would enable has ricocheted for years through the administrative processes and the federal courts.

The Alaska congressional delegation pushed for legislation in the 1990s that would enable a land exchange. A 2009 appropriations bill launched a full environmental review of the project. In 2013, Sally Jewell, the Obama administration’s Interior secretary, issued a decision rejecting the land swap, concluding that process. In 2018, the Trump administration reversed Jewell’s decision and approved the trade. In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason struck down that approval, finding that Trump administration’s Interior secretaries, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, exceeded their legal authority.

The March 16 appeals ruling reversed Gleason’s decision, finding that Bernhardt had acted within his authority. The Biden administration, so far, has supported the Trump administration’s approval of the land trade.

This article originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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