Interior Secretary Sally Jewell met the requirements of the law when she chose to block a road from King Cove to Cold Bay through the Izembek Wildlife Refuge, a federal district court judge in Alaska ruled Tuesday.
And if the 938 residents of King Cove want the road, Congress will have to change the law, the judge said.
King Cove has been pushing for years for an 11-mile, noncommercial road to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay for medical evacuations, and the project has long been a pet issue for Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
But the Interior Department shot down the request after an environmental review of the proposed project.
U.S. District Judge Russel Holland upheld Jewell's decision, saying the secretary followed the requirements of a 2009 public lands law.
"Congress recognized that a road from King Cove to Cold Bay would foster public health and safety and would present environmental concerns. Rather than make the hard choice between public health and safety and the environment itself, Congress left that decision to the Secretary," following an environmental review, Holland wrote.
"Given the sensitive nature of the portion of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge which the road would cross, the (National Environmental Policy Act) requirement for approval of the proposed road probably doomed the project," he wrote.
"Perhaps Congress will now think better of its decision to encumber the King Cove Road project with a NEPA requirement," he added.
Holland dismissed the case, brought by the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, the Native Village of Belkofski, the King Cove Corp., the Aleutians East Borough, the City of King Cove, Etta Kuzakin and Leff Kenezuroff, saying there was no violation of NEPA or the 2009 public lands law.
"This doesn't stop Sen. Murkowski's efforts," said Robert Dillon, communications director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs. Murkowski was traveling when the decision was released Tuesday, he said.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan expressed disappointment in the decision, saying through a spokesperson the "Obama administration has repeatedly sent the message to King Cove that protecting waterfowl is more important than saving lives."
Alaska Rep. Don Young called Jewell's rejection of the road plan "heartless," and said it sends a "clear and resounding message" that the Obama administration values wildlife over human life. "Sadly, for the people of King Cove and Alaska, this fight continues," Young said.
The decision could be null if Murkowski is successful in passing language she has offered in congressional budget negotiations, which would approve the land exchange and remove Jewell's approval from the process.
In her legislative language, "Sen. Murkowski is taking that decision out of the hands of the Interior Department" and handing it to Congress "where there are elected officials who are held accountable by their constituents," Dillon said.
By law, the Interior Secretary's review of the decision is one that "really focuses on environmental issues," and not on public health and safety, Dillon said.
Murkowski's new offering scales back the government's gain in the land trade. The original law would have given the federal government 300 acres for every one given to King Cove. The new deal would be one-to-one for the 206 acres required to build the road, Dillon said.
"I am disappointed to hear Judge Holland's decision," said Gov. Bill Walker. "A road from King Cove to the Cold Bay airport is absolutely critical in ensuring the health and safety of King Cove residents in the face of an emergency."
There have been 17 medevacs out of King Cove this year, four including aid from the U.S. Coast Guard, according to Laura Tanis, communications director for the Aleutians East Borough.
There have been 32 medevacs from the community since Jewell rejected the opportunity for a land exchange to allow for the road in December 2013, Tanis said. Some came in the face of bad weather and others not. The reasons patients -- not all residents of King Cove -- needed to be evacuated for treatment in Anchorage run the gamut, from gastrointestinal bleeding to head trauma, cardiac emergency to a displaced wrist fracture.
The community is "definitely disappointed in the ruling," said Della Trumble, spokesperson for the King Cove Corp. "We actually had hoped for more with this."
The Native corporation will head back to the drawing board with the state of Alaska "to figure out what the next steps will be," Trumble said. "I hope that at some point in time we will have this resolved in our favor. We will continue to keep fighting until we do," she said.
Trumble said the need for air evacuations instead of moving patients on land puts not only the patients' lives at risk, but also "the people who are trying to help save the patient," including, regularly, members of the Coast Guard.
But environmental groups hailed the ruling, saying it would protect the refuge's 315,000 acres and noting that stripping a wilderness area of protection to build a road is without precedent.
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society, said the groups hope to help "the people of King Cove find a transportation solution that does not include a road through one of the most biologically important places on the planet."
"Izembek provides globally important habitat for migratory birds from several continents, including species that people use for subsistence across western Alaska," said Jim Adams, policy director for Audubon Alaska. Other environmentalists noted the refuge's importance for brown bears, caribou, salmon and a wide array of migratory birds.
Trumble dismissed concerns raised about the wildlife refuge, saying, "We all protect the refuge."
"If there's such a big need" to protect the migrating birds, "why are the sports hunters allowed to drive on the existing roads and hunt?" Trumble asked.