For Immediate Release
Documents Reveal Interior Department’s Secret Plan to Build Road through Wilderness Refuge
WASHINGTON (October 16, 2017) – Public records obtained by Defenders of Wildlife pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that the Department of the Interior is planning a potentially illegal land exchange to remove wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from federal public ownership for the construction of a controversial, damaging and unnecessary road.
The Washington Post reported on the controversial proposal.
The following statement is from Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife:
“These records expose yet another of Secretary Zinke’s secretive, backroom deals to sell off and sell out our public lands and wildlife. We will not stand by and watch while some of the most important wildlife habitat on the planet is sacrificed for surreptitious commercial interests.
“If this proposal, which reflects a terrible abuse of power, is successful in Izembek, then none of our public lands, waters and wildlife will be safe.
“If they can pull this off in Alaska, the entire Lower 48 is at risk.”
On July 12, 2017 and August 2, 2017, Defenders of Wildlife filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for all records related to the Trump administration’s consideration of a land exchange and construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Defenders of Wildlife received more than 600 documents including evidence that the Interior Department is pursuing a controversial land trade with King Cove Corporation to facilitate construction of a road through vital wildlands within the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
This secret exchange relies on a legally questionable interpretation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to strip globally important habitat in Izembek of wilderness and refuge protections to build the road.
The Interior Department, including Secretary Ryan Zinke, is going to lengths to ensure this land exchange occurs, including expediting the process and limiting public engagement. 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.” One of America’s unique and ecologically significant wildlife refuges, this extraordinary landscape in Alaska in almost entirely designated as wilderness.
Tens of thousands of waterfowl, seabirds and shorebirds from throughout the Pacific Flyway rely on the Izembek 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 non-stop migration to wintering grounds in Mexico. The refuge also provides critical habitat for the 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 necessary 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 over $50 million to provide a safe, reliable medical response system to the King Cove community, which has fewer than 1,000 residents, in lieu of the damaging road. In 1998 the federal government allocated over $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 recent 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.
The Department of the Interior 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 should be rejected. 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.