Environmentalists sue over Alaska wildlife refuge road plan

A lagoon complex in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge located in Alaska’s Aleutian Island. (Kristine Sowl/USFWS/Reuters)
Conservation groups Wednesday filed a lawsuit to thwart the land exchange Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced last week. The swap is intended to allow a road for King Cove, through part of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

“What the secretary failed to do was any environmental analysis, any public process related to this actual exchange of lands,” attorney Katie Strong said at the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.

The suit she filed alleges the swap violates environmental law and several aspects of ANILCA, the 1980 Alaska lands act. Strong said ANILCA puts specific conditions on building roads in refuges, and on land exchanges.

“That exchange provision was not included to allow the secretary to just trade away lands where development pressures arise,” Strong said.

A matter of health and safety

Road advocates say the access is a matter of health and safety for the people of King Cove. Bad weather often makes it unsafe to fly out of their airstrip, but a road would take them to Cold Bay and its 10,000-foot runway. About 10 miles of road would go through the refuge, most or all of it through designated wilderness, the highest level of federal land protection.

Strong said Zinke needed to get the approval of Congress and subject the proposed land trade to formal public scrutiny. She said an environmental review must also precede any swap.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (George Frey/Getty Images)

A reporter asked Zinke last week if he had done an environmental analysis on the exchange. The secretary gave a general answer.

“We looked at all options,” Zinke said. “We looked at everything.”

His predecessor, Sally Jewell, ordered an environmental study on a different proposed swap and two possible routes for a road. She concluded a road would cause “irreversible damage.”

No significant environmental issue, according to Zinke

Zinke said there would be a new environmental review for the road itself, but he didn’t clearly say whether one was required for the land swap. He said, as secretary, he’s a steward for public lands and also has a responsibility to tribes.

“So on this one, there is no significant issue the Department of Interior has found environmentally,” Zinke said. “Just the opposite.”

Trustees filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, on behalf of nine groups: Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Wilderness League and Sierra Club.

Related stories from around the North:

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

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