Rural Alaska

Judge invalidates proposed land swap for Izembek refuge road

JUNEAU — A judge has vacated a proposed land exchange aimed at building a road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, finding procedural violations.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge John Sedwick in a ruling Monday said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt failed to provide adequate reasoning to support a change in policy in entering into a land exchange agreement with King Cove Corp.

The Interior Department, under the Obama administration, declined a proposed land swap to build a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. Supporters of a proposed road that would connect remote King Cove to Cold Bay and its all-weather airport see the matter as a safety issue.

The Trump administration previously proposed a land exchange but a judge found insufficient rationale for the shift in position in that case, too.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement called the ruling "a victory for an ecologically irreplaceable area and the black brant, Emperor geese, brown bears and stunning array of other wildlife that call it home.”

Della Trumble, CEO of King Cove Corp., called the decision disheartening. She said it's being reviewed and had no comment on any potential next steps.

But, she said, “we’ve been a part of this battle for 35 years and we’re not going to quit. That is the bottom line.”

Nick Goodwin, an Interior Department spokesperson, by email said Bernhardt "firmly believes that the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home is paramount, and the Department stands behind its decision.”

Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

Becky Bohrer is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Juneau.