11:04 PM

For Immediate Release

Trump Administration Stakes Out Unlawful “Road to Ruin” through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

Despite pending litigation, the Trump administration secretly ordered ground-disturbing survey work to facilitate an illegal land trade and construction of a destructive road through wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Conservation groups challenging the land exchange agreement and road construction received a memo documenting the survey work.

The survey, reportedly completed this week, impacted wildlife and habitat through 80 helicopter landings and the installation of 122 survey monuments, violating the Wilderness Act. The intensive work occurred within congressionally designated wilderness in preparation for trading away vital public lands to a private entity to build the controversial road through the heart of Izembek.

The clandestine survey is the latest step in a backroom deal that attempts to strip wilderness and refuge protections from internationally recognized wildlife habitat for road construction, and comes just days after conservation organizations requested that a federal district court vacate Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s illegal land exchange agreement with King Cove Corporation.

Quote from Defenders of Wildlife: 

“In a ludicrous yet unsurprising move, the Trump administration is literally staking out an illegal and unnecessary road through globally renowned wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. This administration has repeatedly shown it has no respect for our environmental laws, wildlife or public lands, and will do anything to satisfy special interests. First a secret agreement and now a surprise survey—what’s next, bulldozers in the dead of night? No matter how much they try to hide, we’ll never stop fighting this road to ruin,” said Mark Salvo, Vice President of Landscape Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

Quotes from other conservation organizations:

“Zinke is doing everything he can to secretly ram this road through, but we’ll continue to expose his deception,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s appalling that Zinke would allow survey work to be done without any public process and while our lawsuit is pending. I recently visited Izembek and saw firsthand how damaging this two-lane road would be to this incredible wilderness. There’s really nothing else like Izembek and it needs to remain protected.”

"This is another egregious example of the Zinke Department of Interior using underhanded methods to circumvent established requirements for public process by rushing implementation of environmentally destructive projects without any opportunity for public participation," said Dr. David Raskin, president of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. "This invasion of the Izembek Wilderness by helicopters and other machinery is yet another step in their continuing program to undermine the Wilderness Act and the public's right to maintain special places that have been protected from such degradations for many decades."

“This is a sad day for all Americans who value wilderness, and a wake up call,” said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, Vice President of Government Affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association. "The administration’s ongoing assault on the Izembek Refuge just took another step by directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow helicopters in designated wilderness, a flagrant disregard for the highest protection bestowed upon lands or waters in the United States.”

“It is outrageous that Secretary Zinke is moving forward, yet again, to harm one of America’s most prized wilderness and sensitive wetland areas, and denying the public any chance to be meaningfully involved in the process. Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is internationally recognized for its wetlands and wildlife values. Protecting it is in the public’s best interests,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Regional Director, The Wilderness Society.


Recent Developments

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.

On January 31, Defenders of Wildlife and eight partner environmental organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s nefarious land deal that would hand over habitat protected in the National Wildlife Refuge System and National Wilderness Preservation System to the private entity, King Cove Corporation. Trustees for Alaska is representing 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.

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.

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.

Controversial Road

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.