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Coldfoot Friends Volunteer Weekend: A 259 Mile Trip Report

By:Pam Seiser, Fairbanks Friend

Three Fairbanks Friends took up the invitation to visit the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot to help with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Celebration last month. This two day event was organized by  Patrick Magrath, Student Conservation Association Intern with the Arctic Refuge. Patrick’s goal was not only to show off the interpretative resources at the center but also outdoor resources surrounding the center. So, Don Kiely, my husband Randy Lewis, and I alternated shifts volunteering at the visitor center with exploring  the surroundings.  

Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot.  pc. Randy Lewis

The visitor center highlights the neighboring public lands of three agencies:  the Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) three National Wildlife Refuges, the famous Arctic Refuge north of the visitor center and the lesser known Kanuti and Yukon Flat Refuges that straddle the Arctic Circle; the Bureau of Land Management’s  Dalton Highway corridor; and the National Park Service’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. It is an inviting center, with a  small  auditorium, a wonderful array of interpretive displays and a cozy  corner with a wood stove, chairs and a pile of reading material. Geologists involved in the construction of the road and pipeline will love that large rocks in front of the building are labeled! Also, the tour guide tells us that the center is known for having the cleanest bathroom in 200 miles.

Patrick Magrath of the Arctic Refuge with some of the exhibits about Wild and Scenic Rivers. 
pc Randy Lewis

The drive to Coldfoot in late August is spectacular. We left Fairbanks in full flower power, but as soon as we hit the  Dalton Highway, we drove right into fall. The air was crisp and hills were ablaze with color. We made the obligatory stops at Arctic Circle Sign Post, Yukon River Bridge,  and Finger Mountain. With all the photo stops, It certainly took us more than the predicted 6 hours to get to Coldfoot. While Randy captured the fall colors with his camera, I searched for mushrooms. There is a wealth of mushrooms above the Arctic Circle! 

During this trip, I tried to wrap my head around the local topography. We traveled through boreal forest and tundra but the Dalton Highway corridor lacked low wetlands, which both the Kanuti and Yukon Flats Refuges are valued for. That was because the road and pipeline traversed a finger of mountains extending southward from the Brooks Range.  This band of mountains separates the watersheds of the Kanuti and  Yukon Flats Refuges.  As we drove up the Dalton Highway, I could feel the presence of the wild refuges, Kanuti to the west and the Yukon Flats to the east, although we were 10 to 15 miles away from them. The Yukon Flats Refuge could be seen up the hill from milepost 86, but there was no convenient pullout spot to view Kanuti. We concluded that if you don’t have the opportunity to fly, hike or paddle into these road-less areas, a road trip to the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center is a nice consolation prize! 

At the end of the first day we arrived at FWS cabins provided for visiting staff just north of the Marion Creek Campgrounds and Coldfoot. We helped set up displays the morning of the event and then served as greeters while Don hiked along the Chandalar Shelf. On Sunday, Don was the greeter, and we drove to Atigun Pass. The evening talks for Wild and Scenic Rivers drew a crowd of  30 people, which was a success. About 75-80 visitors a day dropped by the center. Visitation is high at the start of the summer and drops sharply after July 4th,  the start of the mosquito season. When we had no visitors we pumped the staff for information on hikes. We learned Kanuti has hot springs! Milepost 103 is the  jumping off point for the 14-mile hike/packboat  trip to the hot springs.  

Inside the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot.  pc. Randy Lewis

Overall, we volunteers received more than we gave.  Patrick and Jen Reed, FWS coordinator for Wild and Scenic Rivers,  provided  us the experience we needed to become ambassadors for the area. We definitely recommend earmarking the  August trip to the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center.   We are certainly coming back to the Arctic!




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Hands on a Duck, Contributing to Science and Fun: Friends LOVED Duck Banding

By: Poppy Benson, Friends Vice President

Five friends helped the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge band ducks this past August.  Each team took one- or two-week shifts working with Ross Flagen, Tetlin Deputy Refuge Manager and duck banding guru. Here’s what I heard back: From Carol Damberg of Anchorage “what an excellent experience I had . . .  Ross did an amazing job at leading and teaching me on all things associated with the art of duck banding”; from Moira O’Malley of Fairbanks “Had the time of my life bird banding. Ross is a hoot!”; from George and Susan Hedrick of Sterling returning for their second year “Volunteering on Tetlin refuge provides a firsthand ” behind the scenes” glimpse of how a federal refuge works. – Ross Flagen, deputy manager, provided a super fun and educational experience!”; and Dan Musgrove of Soldotna said “I highly recommend it to anyone . . . . . The people were all great to work with. The education on the ducks was tremendous.”


George Hedrick hauling fencing for the traps.  pc Susan Hedrick

The volunteers also spoke favorably about the “other duties as assigned.” The Hedricks mentioned enjoying painting the picnic tables in the campground and Dan Musgrove of Soldotna loved being Campground Host for a day and all-around Friends Ambassador to other campers.  This later role in reaching out to other travelers and explaining the mission of the Refuge was valued by Refuge staff.  Ross Flagen said “Friends . . . created many positive encounters with the traveling public.  This was an intended part of the project, and it worked out even better than we had hoped.”  Meeting other staff members and volunteers, getting to know Tetlin Refuge and camping for the week at the Refuge’s Deadman Lake Campground were other highlights.


The first week crew enjoying a rare day of sunshine, l to r, Moira O’Malley, a student volunteer, Dan Musgrove and Tetlin Deputy Refuge Manager Ross Flagen, pc USFWS

Tetlin Refuge started waterfowl banding in 2018 to assist the Pacific Flyway in meeting banding objectives.  Ducks are banded so that wintering areas and migration routes can be determined when banded birds are resighted and identified by their discrete band number.  It is banding that allowed the North American flyways to be discovered and mapped forming the basis for much of modern waterfowl management. 


Friends catching trapped ducks.  pc USFWS

Capturing birds and banding five days a week for a month is very labor intensive and that is where Friends came in.  In 2019 two Friends, the Hedricks, helped with banding.  Then came Covid.  This year the project geared up using five Friends over four weeks.  In all 278 Mallards, 84 Northern Pintail, 11 Green-winged Teal, 2 Blue-winged Teal, 2 Lesser Scaup and 1 American Wigeon were captured and banded.   Friends aided in all things associated with the operation of the banding station, from filling buckets with barley for bait and assembling traps, to species identification, banding and disease sampling. Swab samples were collected from most ducks and sent off to US Department of Agriculture lab to be tested for avian diseases particularly bird flu. 


pc: USFWS

Be on the lookout for this exceptional volunteer opportunity to come up again next August.  As Carol said, “Thanks for an incredible life experience!!!   Can’t wait to visit Tetlin again!!

 




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Recording data in a small notebook

September Advocacy Report: Waiting for an Announcement

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

Department of the Interior announced that a Special Assistant for Alaska will be appointed soon. We have not heard who is being considered and await an official announcement.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The bad news is the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act failed to include repeal of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas program and a buy-back of all existing leases.  The good news is that Knik Arm Services canceled its lease in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Along with Regenerate Alaska’s recent lease withdrawal, this is another step by oil and gas interests to walk away from drilling on lands sacred to the Gwich’in people. Only the State of Alaska’s Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) retains its leases, but the prospect of an oil company acquiring those leases becomes dimmer each year as the regulatory problems and the costs of development in the arctic make such efforts very unattractive. In the meantime, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Bureau of Land Management continue the lengthy and expensive process of developing the Supplemental Environmental Impact Study required by order of the Secretary. Many conservation organizations, including Friends have intervened on behalf of the government in the federal lawsuit by the AIDEA and the State.


We have no updates on the threat to the Coastal Plain by the submission of the SF 299 application by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) for a winter right-of-way across the tundra in a wilderness study area and the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
The March 16, 2022, panel decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of defendants’ appeal overturned our second successful lawsuit that had stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. This disastrous decision rewrote Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to reinstate the land exchange for the road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. The far-reaching implications of this decision on 104 million acres of federal conservation units and lands in Alaska are potentially devastating.

As lead plaintiff in this case, Friends worked closely with Deborah Williams (former Alaska Special Assistant to Secretary Babbitt for Alaska), Nicole Whittington-Evans (Alaska Director for Defenders of Wildlife), and others to develop options and strategy to undo this extremely dangerous decision. These efforts resulted in amicus briefs by President Jimmy Carter, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and former Interior Solicitor John Leshy. These developments influenced Trustees for Alaska to petition the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc, (when all the judges of a court hear a case). On May 16, the Court ordered the defendants to file a response to our petition, which has been filed along with their supporting amicus briefs. We are hopeful that these developments will be followed by a majority vote of the full Court that grants the en banc rehearing, which we await. A decision to rehear the case would nullify the disastrous panel decision and begin the appeal anew.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Following the welcome news that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) canceled the proposed lease sale for Lower Cook Inlet oil and gas development, the Biden administration announced that there will be a new five-year leasing plan that includes the same lease sale. This resurrects the specter of drilling platforms, underwater pipelines, and greatly increased industrial transportation in Lower Cook Inlet and the high risk of oil spills that could seriously impact lands and wildlife in the Maritime Refuge


Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
We have heard nothing further on the results of Hilcorp’s shallow exploration on Doyon Corporation inholdings in the Yukon Flats Refuge.  There is great concern that this may lead to oil and gas development that could negatively impact the world-class wildlife and fisheries and subsistence resources in the Refuge.




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Friends Highwater Trip to Tetlin Refuge

By: Nancy Deschu, Friends member and retired hydrologist from Anchorage. She is the refuge liaison for Alaska-Peninsula/Becharof Refuges.

Our Friends’ trip to Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Memorial Day weekend was all about water. It was sunny and hot and the refuge was in flood stage. Our original plan to canoe and flag a trail along Desper Creek changed – the water was so high camp sites would be flooded and it would be impossible to paddle back upstream.  After bringing breakfast to the refuge staff, we eight Friends helped Ranger Tim Lorenzini with the annual roadside cleanup.   We then trailered refuge canoes to Deadman Lake for use by refuge visitors, and set up camp at Deadman Lake.  Over the next four days, we made site visits to check on trails and flood conditions along the refuge’s north boundary all the way to the border of Canada.

 

Water from snow melt, glacial melt, and rainfall in the Nutzotin and Mentasta mountains drives the vast wetlands of the Tetlin Refuge.  The Chisana River (meaning “Rock River” in Upper Tanana language)  and the Nabesna River (meaning “Along the Muddy River” in Ahtna language) head in high peaks in Wrangell St Elias National Park and Preserve, then flow north about 70 miles, and pour into the refuge. Hot, sunny weather in May caused extreme melting in a year with high snowpack so we found high water wherever we went. The boat ramp at Scottie Creek was two feet underwater.  

We estimated the high flow at the Scottie Creek bridge by dropping sticks from the bridge and timing the flow of sticks over a set distance with a stopwatch.  We estimated the surface flow to be nearly three feet per second, which is quite fast for the low gradient and otherwise sluggish Scottie Creek.  The lake level at Hidden Lake had risen so much that it floated and then swamped two jon boats stashed in the lakeshore spruce woods.


Friends in the birding blind in Tetlin Refuge’s Lakeview Campground.  pc: Poppy Benson

We canoed the entire shoreline of Deadman Lake looking at birds and potential backcountry campsites.  Highlights were several species of warblers flying out of spruce trees over the water to feed on insects, horned grebes, swans and Hudsonian godwits.   We sighted 40 bird species on the refuge including a diversity of ducks.  Ducks were abundant on Yarger Lake, but noticeably fewer were observed on Deadman Lake.  No waterfowl were observed on Hidden Lake.
 

Nancy Deschu and two girls from the campground examine captured aquatic invertebrates. pc: Tom Chard

At Deadman Lake we sieved the shallows for aquatic invertebrates. A joyful happenstance was meeting two girls who were fascinated with invertebrates and netting their own trove.  We exchanged specimens in our makeshift aquaria and spent considerable time identifying and observing the creatures.  The girls’ knowledge was impressive!

Although our Tetlin trip was not what we had planned, we were able to contribute our observations on the refuge during unusually high water and enjoy camping and birding on the refuge.




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Life at the end of the continent: geese of Izembek Refuge. 9/20, 5pm-6pm (AKDT)

Presentation by Alison Williams, Widlife Biologist

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a remote refuge in southwest Alaska that contains one of the world’s largest eelgrass beds and hosts a huge diversity of wildlife. In particular, the refuge is critical habitat for several iconic Alaskan goose species that rely on the refuge as migratory staging and wintering areas.  So why are these geese at Izembek, and where do they come from? How are geese at Izembek affected by changing environmental conditions? Come learn about the life of Alaska’s geese and how Izembek is a key piece of their life history!

Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, including virtually the entire population of Pacific Black Brant, visit the lagoon to feed on eelgrass and rest during migration. pc: Kristine Sowls/USFWS

Alison Williams is a wildlife biologist at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, stationed in Cold Bay, Alaska. Originally from Colorado, she grew up in the wild foothills of the Rocky Mountains with a love for wildlife, open spaces, and a special interest in birds.  She earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation, before coming to Alaska as a seasonal Biological Science Technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Through her work, she spent several remarkable years traveling to various Wildlife Refuges within Alaska, including multiple visits to Izembek, which piqued her interest in seaducks, seabirds, and life on the remote edges of Alaska. She started her current, dream job at Izembek in March 2021, and has enjoyed learning about and seeing the huge diversity of wildlife Izembek has to offer. Alison also recently completed a Master of Science Degree in Avian Sciences from University of California Davis on Common Goldeneye reproductive ecology in interior Alaska




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August Advocacy Report: Fresh from the ocean

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Budget Reconciliation bill that included repeal of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas program and a buy-back of all existing leases was torpedoed by Senator Manchin. A minimal reconciliation bill is expected to come before the Senate in August without the Arctic Refuge oil and gas repeal. There is a possibility that an amendment to include the repeal might be adopted, but the chances are not good. If Manchin opposes it, the Democrats will need at least one Republican vote to adopt it. However, it appears that the Secretary of Interior has the power to cancel the lease sale, but there is much uncertainty in all of this.  In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management continue the lengthy and expensive process of developing the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement required by order of the Secretary.

The contractor hired by the USFWS completed its report about the results of its evaluation of the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas. We expect that the report includes little hard evidence to support the claim of historic use of vehicles. The USFWS is still processing the application to decide the validity of the Kaktovik claim.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
The March 16, 2022, panel decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of defendants’ appeal overturned our second successful lawsuit that had stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. This disastrous decision rewrote Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to reinstate the land exchange for the road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. The far-reaching implications of this decision on 104 million acres of federal conservation units and lands in Alaska are potentially devastating.
 
As lead plaintiff in this case, Friends worked closely with Deborah Williams (former Alaska Special Assistant to Secretary Babbitt for Alaska), Nicole Whittington-Evans (Alaska Director for Defenders of Wildlife), and others to develop options and strategy to undo this extremely dangerous decision. Following Trustees for Alaska petition the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc, extensive efforts spearheaded by Ms. Williams achieved huge support for the petition by amicus briefs by President Jimmy Carter and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Interior Solicitor John Leshy. Trustees also obtained amicus support from a group of 25 law professors. The Court ordered the defendants to expeditiously file a response to our petition, which is the first step toward a possible rehearing. This was very encouraging, and the Department of Justice requested a 30-day extension to file their response and then requested another 30-day extension, both of which the Court granted with the admonition that no more extensions will be granted. Their new deadline to file is August 5, and amicus briefs in support of the defendants must be filed within 10 days. A majority vote of the full Court is required to grant the en banc rehearing, which may take several months for a decision. A decision to rehear the case would nullify the disastrous panel decision and begin the appeal anew. However, if our petition is granted, the Secretary of Interior could withdraw the land exchange, which would end the legal process and leave our district court victory intact.
 
The National Wildlife Refuge Association and Defenders of Wildlife drafted and submitted a letter to Secretary Haaland on behalf of 13 CEOs of national conservation organizations and Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges requesting a meeting with the Secretary to discuss the problems created by the land exchange and the Ninth Circuit decision. . We were granted a 30-minute virtual meeting with the secretary and her key staff that occurred on July 14. The agenda and presentations were superbly organized by the Defenders of Wildlife staff in Anchorage and Washington, DC. The meeting went extremely well, and the notes can be found here. We are hopeful that the meeting will produce positive actions by her.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
After the extremely welcome news that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) canceled the proposed lease sale for the Lower Cook Inlet oil and gas development lease sale because of lack of interest by the oil and gas industry, we received the disappointing announcement that the Biden administration has again included a lease sale in the new five-year plan.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
On April 18, 2022, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a sweeping decision that rejected the appeal of the Kenai Refuge wildlife regulations lodged by Safari Clubs International and the State of Alaska. This decision maintained the Kenai regulations that include a ban on baiting of brown bears and other sensible controls on trapping and predator control. Friends was one of many intervenor-defendants in support of the government. Trustees for Alaska Staff Attorneys Katie Strong and Rachel Briggs did an outstanding job to secure this important victory. However, the State has now petitioned the Ninth Circuit Court for an en banc rehearing of the case. Our attorneys have indicated that they do not feel that the State has made a compelling case for a rehearing, very few of which are granted.

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
We have heard nothing further on Hilcorp’s plans to begin seismic exploration next winter on Doyon Corporation inholdings in the Yukon Flats Refuge.  There is great concern that this will lead to oil and gas development that could negatively impact the world-class wildlife and fisheries and subsistence resources in the Refuge. If our appeal of the Izembek decision fails, it may to lead to administrative actions to facilitate possible oil and gas development by means of a land trade or other mechanism.




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A female brown bear pauses on the bank of the Kenai River in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

May Advocacy Report: Seasons Change, We Keep On!

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

We are pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service leadership positions have been filled but continue to hope that a Special Assistant for Alaska will be appointed soon. We have heard rumors but have seen no official announcement.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Budget Reconciliation bill that includes repeal of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas program and a buy-back of all existing leases may be headed for a possible reformulation. There are glimmers of hope that Senator Manchin will support a lesser version that will include the Arctic Refuge lease repeal in a revised version of the legislation. This may occur before summer. In the meantime, U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service (USFWS) and Bureau of Land Management continue the lengthy and expensive process of developing the Supplemental EIS required by order of the Secretary. Many conservation organizations, including Friends have intervened on behalf of the government in the federal lawsuit by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the State.


The threat to the Coastal Plain continues after the submission of the SF 299 application by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) for a winter right-of-way across the tundra in a wilderness study area. The validity of their claim that Kaktovik lands are an inholding without adequate and reasonable access must be decided by the Secretary in consultation with the Solicitor. If KIC prevails, there must be a notice of intent and a NEPA process. The significance of this effort by KIC is related to the Izembek application for a similar inholding right-of-way. If these questionable gambits succeed, it will make that process available for similar claims in other refuges and possibly all federal conservation units. That would be a disaster for all national conservation lands.

The contractor hired by the USFWS completed its report about the results of its evaluation of the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas. We expect that the report includes little hard evidence to support the claim of historic use of vehicles. The USFWS is processing the application to decide the validity of the Kaktovik claim.


Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
The March 16, 2022, panel decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of defendants’ appeal overturned our second successful lawsuit that had stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. This disastrous decision rewrote Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to reinstate the land exchange for the road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. The far-reaching implications of this decision on 104 million acres of federal conservation units and lands in Alaska are potentially devastating.

As lead plaintiff in this case, Friends worked closely with Deborah Williams (former Alaska Special Assistant to Secretary Babbitt for Alaska), Nicole Whittington-Evans (Alaska Director for Defenders of Wildlife), and others to develop options and strategy to undo this extremely dangerous decision. Trustees for Alaska ultimately decided to petition the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc. Extensive efforts spearheaded by Ms. Williams achieved huge support for the petition by amicus briefs by President Jimmy Carter  and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Interior Solicitor John Leshy. Trustees also obtained amicus support from a group of 25 law professors. On May 16, the Court ordered the defendants to file a response to our petition, which is the first step toward a possible rehearing. This is very encouraging, but must be followed by a majority vote of the full Court. We hope that the Ninth Circuit will grant the en banc rehearing, which may take several months for a decision. A decision to rehear the case would nullify the disastrous panel decision and begin the appeal anew. 

Fulfilling her commitment to Senator Murkowski, Secretary of the Interior Haaland visited the Izembek Refuge and King Cove on April 19. She was accompanied by her Special Advisor Raina Thiele, Senator Murkowski, USFWS Director Martha Williams, Regional Director Sara Boario, Regional Chief of Refuges Brian Glaspell, and Izembek Manager Maria Fosado. After a very emotional welcome and ceremonies in King Cove, Secretary Haaland received a guided tour of the Refuge to see the values of wildlife, habitat, and Wilderness that would be severely impacted by the land exchange and the unnecessary and destructive road. The FWS personnel provided her with extensive information and documents about the destructive aspects of the road and more acceptable and positive alternatives to the unnecessary road. We do not expect a decision by the Secretary until the pending appeal is resolved although she may decide at any time.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
We received the extremely welcome news that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) canceled the proposed lease sale for the Lower Cook Inlet oil and gas development lease sale of approximately 1.09 million acres of seafloor from Kalgin Island in the north to Augustine Island in the south. This halted any proposed developments that would have created drilling platforms, underwater pipelines, and greatly increased industrial transportation in Lower Cook Inlet and the high risk of oil spills that could seriously impact lands and wildlife in the Maritime Refuge. Liz Mering of the Cook InletKeeper did an outstanding job of organizing and spearheading this major conservation victory.


Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
On April 18, 2022, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a sweeping decision that rejected the appeal of the Kenai Refuge wildlife regulations lodged by Safari Clubs International and the State of Alaska, This decision maintained the Kenai regulations that include a ban on baiting of brown bears and other sensible controls on trapping and predator control. Friends was one of many intervenor-defendants in support of the government. Trustees for Alaska Staff Attorneys Katie Strong and Rachel Briggs did an outstanding job to secure this important victory..

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
We have heard nothing further on Hilcorp’s plans to begin seismic exploration next winter on Doyon Corporation inholdings in the Yukon Flats Refuge.  There is great concern that this will lead to oil and gas development that could negatively impact the world-class wildlife and fisheries and subsistence resources in the Refuge.




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27 Below, Snow to Your Armpits but Fun, Fun, Fun

By: Dan Musgrove; Soldotna, Alaska

In March of 2022 I joined Ralph Kiehl along with Ranger Tim Lorenzini of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge for the purpose of maintaining remote cabins on the refuge.  Over a one week period the work involved cutting firewood, repairing a cabin porch, inventorying cabin supplies, hauling propane and a generator and taking snow depths for biologists.  The fun involved meeting new people, seeing a refuge I had not been to, ice fishing, snow machining and sharing meals.


 

 Stuver Lake Cabin jhkhhhhhh Jatahmund Cabin   

Once in Tok, Ralph and I attended a snow machine safety class, gathered gear for the trip and enjoyed eating at Fast Eddies, the one restaurant in town.  Our destination for this project was approximately 80 miles towards the Canadian border, with our first stop for staging at the Seaton Roadhouse. Once the snow machines were unloaded and packed we proceeded along for another 25 miles, stopping along the way to take snow depth measurements that would help the biologists. 

The first cabin we reached was the Stuver Lake Cabin with a stunning lake view.  After two days at this cabin shoveling snow, cutting wood and making repairs we headed another 15 miles to Jatahmund Lake Cabin where we spent another 2 days. We were greeted with the sight of 15 caribou on the lake.  At this cabin in addition to cutting wood, shoveling snow off roof structures, our repairs included building a new toilet seat for the outhouse! 

 

Tim measuring snow depth.  hhkkkkkkkkkkkhjkk Repairing Stuver Lake cabin porch floor.

Other duties as assigned. Dan builds an outhouse seat.

 

Dan was a wood-splitting machine.

 

Ralph stacking wood.

Jatahmund Cabin provided amazing mountain views, sunsets, and daily sightings of caribou near the cabin.  The ice fishing here was incredibly fun!  Maybe a few fish tales to tell!

Ranger Tim kept Ralph and me well-fed throughout the trip, cooking was done inside the cabins on propane stoves.  Gathering clean snow for drinking and cooking was a daily occurrence.

Tim and Jahtumend Lake pike.

My favorite part of this volunteer opportunity was seeing new country and sharing in the work of maintaining a refuge.  Volunteering with the Refuge was gratifying and satisfying.  I highly recommend volunteering if an opportunity comes your way. 




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April Advocacy Report: New leadership, looking forward!

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

Friends welcomed recently appointed Alaska Regional Director Sarah Boario on our April board meeting. We had a wonderful interaction with her and look forward to a productive working relationship on programs and issues facing Alaska’s refuges. Now that the leadership positions have been filled, we hope that a Special Assistant for Alaska will be appointed soon. We have heard rumors but have seen no official announcement.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Budget Reconciliation bill that includes repeal of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas program and a buy-back of all existing leases seems to be headed to a possible reformulation. There are glimmers of hope that Senator Manchin will support a lesser version that will include the Arctic Refuge lease repeal in a revised version of the legislation. This may occur before summer. In the meantime, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continue the lengthy and expensive process of developing the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by order of the Secretary. Many conservation organizations, including Friends have intervened on behalf of the government in the federal lawsuit by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the State.

The threat to the Coastal Plain continues after the submission of the SF 299 application by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) for a winter right-of-way across the tundra in a wilderness study area. The validity of their claim that Kaktovik lands are an inholding without adequate and reasonable access must be decided by the Secretary in consultation with the Solicitor. If KIC prevails, there must be a notice of intent and a NEPA process. The significance of this effort by KIC is related to the Izembek application for a similar inholding right-of-way. If these questionable gambits succeed, it will make that process available for similar claims in other refuges and possibly all federal conservation units. That would be a disaster for all national conservation lands.

The contractor hired by the USFWS has completed its report about the results of its evaluation of the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas. We expect that the report includes little hard evidence to support the claim of historic use of vehicles. The USFWS will proceed with the administrative process to decide the validity of the Kaktovik claim.


Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
On March 16, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of defendants’ appeal of our second successful lawsuit that had stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. This disastrous decision rewrote  Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) to reinstate the land exchange for the road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. The far-reaching implications of this decision on more than 100 million acres of federal conservation units and lands in Alaska are potentially devastating, as described in the summary of the decision. As lead plaintiff in this case, Friends is working with our legal team Trustees for Alaska and the other conservation clients on options and strategy to undo this extremely dangerous decision.

 
Secretary Haaland will be visiting Izembek Refuge and King Cove on April 19. We understand that she will be accompanied by Senator Murkowski, USFWS Director Martha Williams, Regional Director Sara Boario, and Alaska Chief of Refuges Brian Glaspell. Weather permitting, we expect that she will receive a guided tour of the Refuge to see the values of wildlife, habitat, and Wilderness that would be severely impacted by the land exchange and the unnecessary and destructive road.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
We await the Final EIS from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) for the Lower Cook Inlet oil and gas development lease sale of approximately 1.09 million acres of seafloor from Kalgin Island in the north to Augustine Island in the south. The proposed developments would create drilling platforms, underwater pipelines, and greatly increased industrial transportation in Lower Cook Inlet and pose a high risk of oil spills that could seriously impact lands and wildlife in the Maritime Refuge.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Oral arguments on the Federal Ninth Circuit appeal of the Kenai Refuge regulations by Safari Clubs International and the State were held on February 18. The Kenai regulations include a ban on baiting of brown bears and other sensible controls on trapping and predator control. Friends is one of many intervenor-defendants in support of the government. We were represented by Trustees for Alaska Staff Attorney Rachel Briggs who did an outstanding job. Based on the questions by the 3-justice panel, we expect that our victory in the Federal District Court will be upheld..

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Hilcorp announced plans to begin seismic exploration next winter on Doyon Corporation inholdings in the Yukon Flats Refuge. There is great concern that this will lead to oil and gas development that could negatively impact wildlife and fisheries in the Refuge.




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A red fox (Vulpes vulpes) prowls the edges of Izembek Lagoon.

A recent ninth circuit decision regarding Izembek Refuge poses a threat to all of Alaska’s refuges, parks, and wilderness

In March, a majority decision in the Ninth Circuit upheld a Trump administration land exchange, setting an incredibly problematic precedent for conservation and subsistence in  Alaska.

The majority opinion was developed and affirmed by two Trump-appointed Ninth  Circuit judges, and a very strong dissent was authored by a third judge who has been part of the  appellate court for decades since President Clinton appointed her. Beyond the extensive destruction that this decision causes to the subsistence and ecological values of Izembek, the  Ninth Circuit’s decision poses a broad existential threat to conservation, subsistence, and  conservation system unit (CSU) lands across Alaska, including national parks, wildlife refuges,  and congressionally designated Wilderness. With this decision, any Secretary will be able to  simply give away protected federal lands for industrial development while avoiding protections  for conservation and subsistence put in place by Congress. This decision undermines Alaska  National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in two important ways, as found by the  federal District Court: 

First, under ANILCA, the Secretary may only exchange lands where such an exchange furthers  ANILCA’s purposes. What the Ninth Circuit did in upholding Secretary Bernhardt’s land  exchange in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge was to unilaterally determine that economic and  social benefits to Alaska Native Corporations or other entities can override ANILCA’s long  established purposes aimed at conservation, subsistence and protection of ecologically important  habitats, wildlife and wilderness values. This decision circumvents and thereby nullifies the  protections Congress established when adopting ANILCA, putting economic benefits on  par or superior to conservation and subsistence. The decision also provides the Interior Secretary broad and nearly unreviewable discretion to make such decisions. Under the  majority’s interpretation, the Secretary could, for example, trade away the heart of Denali  National Park — North America’s tallest mountain — based on finding economic benefits to  private landowners from charging hikers and climbers for use and access. 

Second, ANILCA Title XI governs the approval of all transportation systems proposed through CSUs and requires a very specific agency and public process to make sure impacts to CSUs are  minimized. In fact, for transportation systems proposed through Wilderness, Title XI expressly  limits the Executive Branch’s authority by requiring approval by both houses of Congress and  

the President. When entering the land exchange agreement, Secretary Bernhardt ignored this  mandate and unilaterally sought to exchange lands out of federal ownership to avoid Title XI’s  process and Congress’s role. The Ninth Circuit majority opinion upheld Bernhardt’s approach,  agreeing that Title XI doesn’t apply because once lands are exchanged, the lands are no longer federal lands, creating a huge loophole and allowing any Secretary to circumvent Congress’s  intent. 

Such an approach is ripe for abuse. Under this precedent, any future Secretary of the Interior  would have full discretion to enter into land exchanges in CSUs across Alaska that circumvent  ANILCA’s purposes and mandates. The Secretary could swap protected federal lands if the 

Secretary determines it would benefit Alaska Native or other corporations or entities  economically or socially, and completely bypass the strict procedures contained in Title XI to  allow roads, pipelines, or other transportation systems in CSUs. This puts millions of acres of  protected lands at risk by allowing the Secretary to overwrite Congressionally designated legal  protections.  

The Ninth Circuit decision also determined that the Secretary had adequately explained his  decision reversing the prior administration’s decision to not exchange lands for a road, going  against years of precedent under the Administrative Procedures Act. This aspect of the decision  has the potential to impact all federal regulatory decisions in the future. 

Izembek Background: 

The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, located on the southern end of the Alaska Peninsula,  encompasses a globally significant wetlands complex that sustains an extraordinary level of  biodiversity. The refuge provides important subsistence resources for Alaska Natives much  beyond refuge boundaries and vital habitat for terrestrial and marine species, including virtually  the entire global population of Pacific black brant. Nearly all of the Izembek Refuge is  Congressionally designated Wilderness. 

For decades the Aleutians East Borough and the City of King Cove have advocated for a road  through the refuge’s designated Wilderness to connect the community of King Cove with the community of Cold Bay. Numerous legislative, administrative, and judicial decisions have found  that constructing a road through the refuge would be destructive and unnecessary. In 2013, the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that the proposed road would result in  significant impacts to refuge resources and would have “major effects” on brant and other  migratory birds due to increased human access, hunting pressure and disturbance. As a result of  this finding, Secretary Jewell rejected a land exchange to allow for a road. 

In 2018, Secretary Bernhardt approved a land exchange to allow for a road using the land  exchange provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) without  any public process or environmental analysis. Secretary Bernhardt justified this action under the  theory that once the lands were exchanged out of federal ownership, they would be private lands  and thus no longer be subject to the protections put in place for wildlife refuges and Wilderness (which prohibit road construction). 

That exchange was invalidated by the U.S. District Court in Alaska, resulting in a second  exchange in 2019. That second exchange agreement was also invalidated by the U.S. District  Court. The district court found that the exchange did not further ANILCA’s purposes, which are  for conservation and subsistence. The court further found that Secretary Bernhardt did not  comply with the mandatory provisions governing the authorization for a road in a refuge and  Wilderness contained in ANILCA Title XI, which requires action by the President and  Congressional approval. The court also concluded that Secretary Bernhardt did not adequately  explain Interior’s change in position considering Secretary Jewell’s 2013 decision rejecting a  similar exchange. Secretary Bernhardt successfully appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit  Court of Appeals.




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