Home NEWS Science Zinke to sign land-swap deal allowing road through Alaska’s Izembek wilderness

Zinke to sign land-swap deal allowing road through Alaska’s Izembek wilderness

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will sign a land-swap agreement Monday to allow a small, remote Alaska village to construct a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wilderness area that has been protected for decades.

The signing ceremony at Interior headquarters, which will proceed despite the government shutdown, marks a pivotal development in a political fight that has raged for more than 30 years. Alaskan politicians have argued the road would provide a route in poor weather for medical evacuations to the closest regional airport, while environmentalists counter that it would fragment a pristine stretch of tundra and lagoons otherwise off-limits to motorized traffic.

Interior officials said Sunday that the curtailed federal operations meant they could not allow media to attend the signing event. It will feature not only a delegation from King Cove, a town of 925 residents, but Gov. Bill Walker (I) and the state’s entire congressional delegation: Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.

Regardless of the fanfare it receives, both supporters and critics of the agreement see it as an important precedent. The refuge, which provides a critical feeding ground for migrating birds as well as habitat for bears, caribou and other species, was established by President Dwight Eisenhower. All but 15,000 of its 315,000 acres have been designated as wilderness since 1980, and roads are traditionally banned in such areas.

The Washington Post first reported in October that Zinke was exploring the land exchange and confirmed this month that the agreement had been finalized.

In an interview in early January, King Cove City Administrator Gary Hennigh said residents “are encouraged that this administration has a different attitude about this road, and … that the needs of the people in King Cove can be met. At the same time, the special qualities of the Izembek refuge can continue.”

The question of how to treat King Cove, located on the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula, has bedeviled federal officials. As part of an agreement brokered during the Clinton administration, taxpayers spent more than $50 million to fund a modern telemedicine clinic and a hovercraft that covered the distance between the village and Cold Bay in 20 minutes. Multiple federal analyses endorsed alternative solutions to the road project — such as a marine ferry to replace the hovercraft residents sold off — and suggested bad weather could make the gravel road impassible for stretches in the winter.

Yet local and state officials have argued that the same weather conditions often make air and boat transport treacherous and warrant construction of an 11-mile route through the refuge. Between 1980 and 1994, 12 people died during aerial medical evacuations en route to the hub airport, though no residents have died during such evacuations since then.

Hennigh said that while details of the exact land exchange will have to be negotiated over the next several months, any road built will not harm the refuge.

Environmentalists, however, say it will place the birds that migrate along the Pacific Coast Flyway in peril. In spring and fallnearly the entire global population of emperor and Pacific black brant geese stop in Izembek to eat. In winter, tens of thousands of the threatened Steller’s eider sea ducks stay there and molt.

The 1964 Wilderness Act bars new roads and the use of motorized vehicles in areas designated under the law except in rare instances — such as to provide access for the development of existing mining claims — and there appears to be no precedent for the executive branch permitting those activities for other reasons. The Wilderness Society and other groups successfully blocked the Forest Service last year from authorizing four miles of road construction in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to access a long-dormant gold mine.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, said in an email that the land deal “is the result of backroom negotiations that kept the public completely in the dark and ignored the Interior Department’s science-based conclusions against the road.”

“Sadly, the Trump administration is charging ahead with the effort to build an unnecessary road through this extraordinary wilderness area — regardless of the damage it would cause to Izembek’s globally significant wildlife habitat — because it fits their agenda of selling off or trading America’s public lands for development,” she said. “We are committed to protecting Izembek, and plan to challenge the land exchange in court to ensure this irreplaceable wilderness area remains intact.”

Read more:

Ryan Zinke eyes a land swap to pave way for a road through AK wilderness, documents show

Interior lays the groundwork for renewed drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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