Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday signaled her support for a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that has been at the center of a decades-long battle between the largely Indigenous people of King Cove, who say it will provide lifesaving access to a Cold Bay runway, and environmental groups who say a road will harm the refuge.
But at the same time, Haaland announced the agency is withdrawing a land exchange authorized in 2019 by the Interior Department under former President Donald Trump, between the department and King Cove Corp. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided in November with environmental groups against the swap, and Haaland said that rather than continue the legal battle, she would launch a review process to consider different options for a land swap that would be needed to construct a road between the two communities.
Haaland visited King Cove, a community with less than 1,000 residents, nearly a year ago to meet with those who are advocating for a road to access Cold Bay’s World War II-era jet runway, where lifesaving medical flights can land and take off.
Conservation groups who oppose the road have argued that it would support commercial interests and harm migrating waterfowl and other wildlife that depend on the 310,000-acre refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
“The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities. I reject that binary choice,” said Haaland, the first Indigenous Interior secretary.
In a written statement, Haaland went on to say that “respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening — really listening — to Tribal communities.”
[Biden administration approves development of Alaska’s Willow oil project]
“I have instructed my team to immediately launch a process to review previous proposals for a land exchange, rooted in a commitment to engagement in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation with Tribes, to protecting the national wildlife refuge system, and to upholding the integrity of ANILCA’s subsistence and conservation purposes,” she said.
Della Trumble, chief executive of King Cove Corp., said in statement that Haaland had “emotion in her voice” when she told King Cove community leaders during a virtual call Tuesday that she “supports the land exchange and a road.”
“We’re going to work through this process. We have seen the Interior’s announcement and filing on which we have no further comment,” Trumble said by email.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a persistent critic of President Joe Biden’s administration, said in reaction to the decision that Haaland “killed the King Cove Road.”
“While she claims she wants to consider alternative land exchanges, that will push the entire process back to square one and place the lives of King Cove residents at risk today,” said Dunleavy, who accompanied Haaland during her April 2022 visit to King Cove. “The fact is her decision to halt the land swap increases the likelihood that a resident in King Cove won’t be able to receive life-saving medical treatment in time due to bad weather at the village’s airstrip.”
King Cove community leaders attribute 18 deaths to the lack of road access between King Cove and Cold Bay, either due to plane crashes or an inability to reach timely medical treatment. They reported that since 2013, there have been 208 medical evacuations from King Cove to Anchorage.
The announcement came on the heels of the Interior Department’s decision Monday to approve the massive Willow oil development on Alaska’s North Slope, marking two significant decisions impacting the state from the Biden administration in as many days.
Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a prepared statement that he thinks this is the “latest act in Secretary Haaland’s disingenuous playbook,” telling Alaskans that she supports something but then delaying it for years so it doesn’t happen.
“Almost all of these issues — like so much of the war on Alaska emanating from the Biden Administration — are driven by radical Lower 48 environmental interests, not by Alaskans or the Alaska Native people who’ve lived in our state for thousands of years,” Sullivan said.
Andy Moderow, senior director of policy at the Alaska Wilderness League, said the group is “grateful that Secretary Haaland took action today to protect the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge against an improper, Trump-era land exchange.”
He said his group late Monday had not seen a statement saying Haaland supports the road, but that the group understands that Haaland is leaving open the possibility of a land exchange that could lead to a road in the future.
The group is hopeful that following a review, Haaland will reject a land exchange, just as the Obama administration did in 2013 after a review during that era.
”We’re excited because reconsideration is better than the flawed exchange” approved under the Trump administration, he said.
The debate over the road goes back to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, signed in 1980 to designate more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska for conservation. According to a statement released Tuesday, the Interior Department determined that the land exchange authorized under the Trump administration contained several procedural flaws and did not take into account “potential effects on subsistence uses and habitat.”
The Interior Department intends to initiate a separate environmental analysis and weigh a proposed 2013 land exchange considered by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell under the administration of former President Barack Obama. Jewell had decided against a previous proposed land exchange in 2013.
That proposal would have transferred approximately 200 acres within the refuge to the state of Alaska for a single-lane gravel road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. The proposal would not have allowed the road to be used for commercial purposes. In exchange, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would receive approximately 43,000 acres of land owned by the state to be designated for wilderness conservation, as well as approximately 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corp. In addition, the King Cove Corp. would relinquish 5,430 acres of selected lands within the Izembek Refuge and the Izembek Wilderness boundary.
The proposal authorized under the Trump administration did not prohibit commercial use of the road, authorized gravel mining within the refuge and designated less land coming for conservation as part of the exchange.
The Wilderness Society and the League of Conservation Voters, both conversation groups, also applauded the decision to withdraw the Trump-era land exchange.
“We believe the land exchange was illegal, so we are happy and grateful that it has been rescinded,” said Tim Woody, spokesman with the Wilderness Society, in a statement. “This is a good first step toward ensuring protections for Izembek. Regarding any potential next steps regarding a road, we will address them as they come up and will keep working to protect the wildlife refuge and its designated wilderness.”
Haaland’s decision has implications for other lands protected under ANILCA, said Wilderness Society Alaska Senior Regional Director Karlin Itchoak.
”If left in place, this illegal land exchange would have created a devastating precedent threatening all conservation designations under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,” Itchoak said.
Daily News reporter Alex DeMarban contributed.