By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE (Reuters) – The Trump administration has resurrected a plan to carve a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska, less than four months after a federal judge struck down an earlier plan as illegal.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the chief executive of an Alaska Native corporation signed an agreement to trade land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Alaska to allow construction of an unpaved road through what is now designated wilderness, Bernhardt’s office said on Wednesday, providing a summary of the agreement.
“I choose to place greater weight on the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home. It is not a decision I take lightly,” Bernhardt said in a statement.
The trade, if carried out, would not authorise a road, but it would create a corridor on which a road could be built.
The agreement was signed by Bernhardt on July 3 and by King Cove Corp Chief Executive Della Trumble on July 12. Its existence was first reported Tuesday by Alaska Public Media.
Supporters of the land swap say a road edging bird-rich Kinzarof Lagoon would give residents of King Cove, an Aleut village of about 1,000 people, emergency access to an all-weather airstrip at the tinier village of Cold Bay.
Without such access, proponents say, King Cove residents needing medical evacuations are at the mercy of notoriously stormy weather.
The resurrected land-trade deal contains no requirement that the road be used only for emergencies. A road would provide “adequate opportunity for satisfaction of the economic and social needs of the State of Alaska,” it says.
Environmentalists claim the road would destroy valuable habitat, that village residents have better alternatives for emergency services and that the project is really intended to serve commercial fishing interests.
An earlier version of the land trade was considered by the Obama administration. After four years of study, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected it.
Ryan Zinke, the former interior secretary, in January 2018 reversed Jewell’s decision but that move was struck down by a federal judge.
The new agreement, almost identical to the agreement struck down in court, is accompanied by a 20-page report signed by Bernhardt.
Environmentalists say they are weighing further legal action.
“We are disappointed but not surprised to see that Interior has now signed a new agreement to trade away important wilderness and wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” Bridget Psarianos, an attorney for the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, said by email.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker)