An array of environmental groups sued President Donald Trump’s administration Wednesday in an effort to block the proposed road on the Alaska Peninsula that would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The suit comes less than two weeks after Zinke signed a deal to trade up to 500 acres of the refuge’s lands — which will likely include property designated as wilderness — to an Alaska Native village corporation in an effort to advance the road’s construction.
Zinke’s spokeswoman referred a request for comment to the U.S. Department of Justice. Spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in an email that the Justice Department was reviewing the suit and declined to comment further.
The decades-old fight over the proposed road pits environmental advocates against local residents and Alaska’s elected leaders. The project, if built, would connect a jet airstrip in the village of Cold Bay to a fishing town, King Cove, that’s currently accessible only by boat and small plane.
King Cove’s residents say that without access to Cold Bay’s long runway, bad weather can make it impossible for people suffering from medical problems to be evacuated to Anchorage. Environmental groups argue that bad weather could shut down a road, too.
“It is unfortunate that the special interest groups continue to ignore the health and safety concerns of the residents of King Cove,” said Della Trumble, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Native village corporation, King Cove Corp., that signed the agreement with Zinke.
“We are thankful that the current administration has listened to our concerns and has agreed to a land exchange that will allow us to better protect our families. We are confident the courts will uphold the agreement.”
The Department of the Interior said the land trade was authorized by a specific section, 1302(h), of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. But the environmental groups allege in their complaint that the deal doesn’t meet a legal requirement that such land trades meet ANILCA’s purposes.
ANILCA contains a separate portion, Title XI, that requires presidential and congressional approval for roads and other “transportation systems” that run through wilderness areas. Zinke circumvented that provision by signing the land exchange, said Katie Strong, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, the law firm representing the environmental groups.
“Congress said that you can have a road through these areas and here’s how you get it — not by trading lands away but by going through these specific steps,” Strong said. “If they can trade away land any time a development project comes along, none of Alaska’s public lands are safe under this administration.”
The environmental groups also argue that the land trade was a “major” federal action that, under the National Environmental Policy Act, should have been accompanied by an environmental review. Trustees for Alaska also sent Zinke a letter Wednesday that gives him a formal, 60-day notice of their intent to sue over violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Other groups signing on to the lawsuit are The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Wilderness League and Sierra Club.