The Trump administration’s illegal backroom deal to force a road through Izembek is unconscionable. President Trump and his administration plan to rip irreplaceable federal wildlands from public ownership to satisfy commercial interests. We will not wait for the bulldozers to destroy Izembek’s wilderness wetlands and threaten the species that depend on them for survival. Our lawsuit seeks to stop this boondoggle and uphold protections for Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
For Immediate Release
Defenders of Wildlife Challenges Unlawful Road to Ruin
Defenders of Wildlife and eight partner environmental organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s agreement to trade away congressionally designated wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to authorize construction of a destructive and unnecessary road through the heart of this vital preserve. The deal with King Cove Corporation was negotiated behind closed doors and signed by Secretary Zinke amidst the government shutdown.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“The Trump administration’s illegal backroom deal to force a road through Izembek is unconscionable. President Trump and his administration plan to rip irreplaceable federal wildlands from public ownership to satisfy commercial interests. We will not wait for the bulldozers to destroy Izembek’s wilderness wetlands and threaten the species that depend on them for survival. Our lawsuit seeks to stop this boondoggle and uphold protections for Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.”
On January 22, the Department of the Interior signed an agreement to trade away internationally recognized, congressionally designated wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to allow construction of a destructive and unnecessary road. The land exchange agreement allows for commercial use of the road with only minor restrictions that lack a viable enforcement mechanism.
Defenders of Wildlife filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year for records related to the Trump administration’s consideration of a land exchange and construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. We received more than 600 documents, including evidence that the Interior Department was pursuing a controversial land trade with King Cove Corporation to facilitate construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Trustees for Alaska will represent Defenders of Wildlife in the lawsuit, along with Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Watch.
The Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, went to great lengths to ensure this land exchange occurred, including expediting and limiting public engagement in the process. An email written by a Fish and Wildlife Service official confirmed that “the land exchange idea and ‘push’ is from the Secretary’s office.”
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a globally recognized wetland and coastal habitat for iconic wildlife, including brown bears, caribou, salmon and hundreds of species of migratory birds. Its irreplaceable wetlands are so special that in 1986 they became one of the first wetland areas in the United States to be designated a “Wetland of International Importance” pursuant to the Ramsar Convention. One of America’s unique and ecologically significant wildlife refuges, this extraordinary landscape in Alaska is almost entirely designated as wilderness.
Tens of thousands of waterfowl, seabirds and shorebirds from throughout the Pacific Flyway rely on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for nesting and feeding. Each fall the refuge shelters nearly the world’s entire population of Pacific black brant as they gorge themselves on the refuge’s eelgrass beds in preparation for their nonstop migration to wintering grounds in Mexico. The refuge also provides critical habitat for the federally threatened Steller’s eider.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge lies between the small Alaskan villages of King Cove and Cold Bay. The community of King Cove claims that a road through Izembek is needed to assure safe transport to Cold Bay’s larger airstrip in the event of a medical emergency. However, commercial interests are a driving force behind the road proposal, as most recently indicated in the wish-list of “Alaska’s Initial Priority Infrastructure Projects” that Alaska Governor Bill Walker sent to President Trump and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in May. The real purpose of the road is to provide ground transportation for workers and products of the Peter Pan Seafood company.
American taxpayers have already spent more than $50 million to provide a safe, reliable medical response system to the King Cove community in lieu of the damaging road. In 1998, the federal government allocated more than $37 million to upgrade access to quality medical care for the people living in the village, and then paid an additional $13 million in support of that commitment. King Cove subsequently elected to voluntarily remove from service the state-of-the-art $9 million hovercraft ambulance that was purchased, which successfully performed every medical evacuation to Cold Bay while in operation. The road proposal would cost an estimated $30 million more, resulting in a final bill to the American taxpayer of at least $80 million, excluding costly road maintenance.
In addition, the proposed road would likely cost lives, even though other viable transportation options exist. The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is subject to frequent violent winter storms, making travel along the proposed route extremely dangerous. Traveling the road would likely be treacherous for much of the year, and sometimes impassable, due to seasonal icing, high winds, blizzards and avalanche conditions. A 2015 study by the Army Corps of Engineers evaluated non-road transportation alternatives for King Cove. The study concluded that a marine ferry option would be reliable approximately 99 percent of the time, at a cost comparable to the road.
The Interior Department has studied this issue exhaustively and repeatedly concluded that the road should not be constructed. In 2013, after a comprehensive four-year analysis including consideration of more than 70,000 public comments, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell reaffirmed that a road through Izembek refuge would irrevocably damage natural resources and rejected a proposed exchange offering the refuge more than 56,000 acres of land for a road right of way. In 2015, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Secretary’s decision to protect the refuge.
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.