While the government was shut down Monday, the Trump administration was at work behind closed doors. The U.S. Department of the Interior gave Alaska’s King Cove Corporation permission to build a road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed a hotly contested land-swap agreement on Monday allowing remote Alaskan town King Cove to build a road through the protected wilderness. The land swap gives King Cove Native Corporation up to 500 acres of federal land in exchange for the same acreage of tribal land. The debate over the proposed road has been ongoing for 30 years.
The 300,000 acre refuge rests between the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska and is home to a vast coastal ecosystem that offers crucial refuge to millions of migratory birds every year. The National Audubon Society and the Ramsar Convention have both recognized Izembek as a globally important wetland bird habitat. The road will irreparably fragment the pristine wetland, which hosts nearly the entire global population of emperor and Pacific black brant geese (pictured above) twice annually.
Past environmental reviews of the proposed project have concluded that the road would permanently damage the refuge, and recommended against construction. No new environmental reviews have been conducted since Trump took office.
Those who oppose the road are concerned about the precedent the construction of this road will set. The Wilderness Society argues that the move undermines protections for designated wilderness areas outlined in the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
“We have a globally recognized wetland, an absolutely unparalleled habitat for so many iconic species, designated wilderness, and this administration just ran right through it all,” Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark told the Washington Post. Clark, who was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton, went on to say, “What a sellout. If they can do this in as biologically valuable and internationally recognized [a] place as Izembek, there is not one public land base that is off limits to this administration.”
The town of King Cove, home to under 1,000 residents, has long hoped for a road to connect their small town with an airport, offering a safer route out of town in inclement weather. Politicians have cited the difficulty of emergency medical evacuations during storms from King Cove as a key reason to build the proposed 11-mile road.
Under President Clinton, a $50 million initiative built a medical clinic in King Cove and provided a hovercraft that could rapidly transport emergency patients to nearby Cold Bay (which has a medical clinic and an airstrip). The town sold off the hovercraft. Later initiatives proposed a ferry service to transport patients, but local officials pushed back, arguing that driving in poor weather would be safer than air or water transit. Despite the lack of a road, since 1994, no patients have died during medical evacuations.
Photo by K. Mueller, USFWS.