The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a ruling from earlier this year that cleared a path for a land trade to facilitate putting a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, connecting two communities at the western edge of the Alaska Peninsula.
It’s the latest reversal in a decadeslong saga over whether or not to build an 11-mile gravel road through an area environmentalists say is a crown jewel for biological diversity worthy of preservation. Other Alaska stakeholders say their health, safety and economic well-being depends on linking the community of King Bay with the all-weather airport in Cold Bay.
Thursday’s ruling by the 9th Circuit essentially nullified a decision in March by a smaller three-judge panel that said the Interior secretary is allowed to swap lands defined under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act as protected wilderness without approval from Congress. Instead, that case will need to be heard again by the full bench for its legality to be determined.
The land-swap deal between the U.S. Department of the Interior and King Cove’s village corporation was initially advanced under the Trump administration, and later supported by Biden administration officials.
Environmental groups were quick to call Thursday’s action by the 9th Circuit a win.
“It was obvious from the beginning that the destructive ruling by two Trump-appointed judges to uphold a land exchange must be reviewed by the court in the interest of wilderness areas and wildlife refuges across the nation,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska senior regional director for The Wilderness Society, in a press release sent out on behalf of the plaintiff group. “We trust that the full 9th Circuit will find that the land exchange was illegal and undermines provisions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.”
The plaintiffs take issue with the assertion that because the road would create economic benefits it should be allowed to bypass processes designed to conserve the environment and wildlife under ANILCA.
“We’re really sad that the national and local environmental groups keep upholding this,” said Della Trumble, head of the King Cove Corp., which has long pushed for the road. “It’s very frustrating and disheartening that this continues.”
The main reason for connecting the two communities, according to proponents, is the sizable airstrip in Cold Bay, which is big enough for jets to land more or less regardless of weather conditions. That includes emergency medical flights when there’s a health or public safety crisis, as well as commercial passenger service for residents needing to get off the peninsula. Without any overland route, Trumble said she had just returned from a trip out for medical care by sea.
“I came home on a boat yesterday from Cold Bay to King Cove,” said Trumble, who has bad knees. “This was my last trip by boat, because I can’t do this anymore.”
Just hours after the 9th Circuit decision on Thursday, Trumble said the path forward for litigants wasn’t yet clear.
“We’ll see what the next steps are, but the battle isn’t over,” Trumble said.