In a significant victory for conservation and America's public lands, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has upheld a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to forbid the construction of a road through federally designated wilderness in Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, Jewell was asked by supporters of the road proposal to set a dangerous precedent by stripping a wilderness area of protections granted by Congress -- something that has never been done. The road, which had already been twice rejected by the federal government after extensive study, threatened to destroy sensitive wildlife habitat that is important on a global scale.
Virtually all of the world's emperor geese and Pacific black brant rest and feed at the Izembek refuge during spring and fall migrations. The proposed road would have had significant negative effects on sensitive bird populations, brown bears, caribou and many other species, as well as the remote Alaska Native communities that subsist by hunting and fishing in the refuge.
Months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that construction of a road between the Alaska communities of King Cove and Cold Bay would not be in the public interest. The government acknowledged that the road would damage the heart of a globally significant wilderness and wildlife habitat, as well as subsistence resources. Nevertheless, proponents of the road have pressured Jewell to overturn the government's carefully researched decision.
This summer, the Association of Village Council Presidents, representing 56 Native villages in western Alaska, wrote a letter to the Interior Department to express the group's opposition to a road because it would threaten subsistence resources that are important to Native communities.
The Center for Sustainable Economy, recently provided the Interior Department with an economic analysis that "unequivocally demonstrated that moving forward with this project is a losing proposition economically and clearly not in the public interest" when the enormous financial and environmental costs of the road are weighed against its potential benefits to the public.
Secretary Jewell visited Alaska in September so she could meet with stakeholders on both sides of the issue and get a first-hand look at the region's transportation issues. Armed with volumes of federal data and her own boots-on-the-ground knowledge, the Interior secretary has come to the conclusion that such a road should not be built, and Izembek's wilderness must remain intact.
It is a sound, science-based decision that reflects the Obama administration's commitment to preserving America's public land, and upholds the sanctity of wilderness that has been set aside by Congress.
For that, we should all be grateful.
Jamie Williams is president of The Wilderness Society, based in Washington, D.C.