March 2018 – Friends Advocacy Update, by Board President David Raskin
The U.S. Department of Interior has placed drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge on the fast track. Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash held closed-door meetings in Fairbanks and Anchorage to promote leasing and drilling in the Refuge. They have stated a goal of selling leases by 2019. These moves are strongly opposed by conservation organizations and many Alaska residents.
The Gwich’n people will be severely impacted by proposed industrialization of the Coastal Plain. Many describe this as a moral issue that violates their lifestyle and historical dependence on the caribou herd that uses the Coastal Plain to calve and raise their young. Opponents to the proposed drilling staged public demonstrations to express their concerns. Opposition to the government and the Alaska congressional delegation is spearheaded by a national coalition of conservation organizations. Planning and strategy meetings were hosted by the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, DC last month, and further meetings will be held in Anchorage on March 28-29. This major effort to save the Coastal Plain is being organized across the nation.
Our lawsuit along with eight other conservation organizations opposing the Department of Interior land trade for construction of a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Refuge Wilderness was filed in federal court on January 31, 2018. It appears that proponents of the land trade and road will enter the lawsuit as intervenors to support the government. The Aleutians East Borough voted to enter the lawsuit on the side of the government. The Borough approved spending $61,875 to hire a law firm to help them join the case. That money will also help four other local entities trying to intervene on behalf of the federal government, the King Cove Corporation, The City of King Cove, the Agdaagux Tribe, and the Native Village of Belkofski. The State of Alaska is also expected to intervene on behalf of the government. These interventions must be approved by the court, and our attorneys at Trustees for Alaska continue to monitor developments and represent our interests in the federal court. We are optimistic that we will eventually prevail to stop the dismantling of the Wilderness Act and the desecration of the heart of the Izembek Wilderness.
We have not seen any new action by the State of Alaska to to reduce predators in the refuges. We are working with the conservation coalition to stop any effort to interfere with the natural balance and diversity of wildlife populations on our refuges.
On January 31, 2018, Trustees for Alaska filed suit in Anchorage Federal District Court on behalf of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and eight national environmental groups. This lawsuit challenges the legality of the land trade that would allow the construction of a road through the biological heart of designated wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. The complaint alleges that this land trade by the Secretary of the Interior, which would trade up to 500 acres of designated wilderness in the ecologically sensitive Izembek Isthmus for non-refuge lands owned by the King Cove Corporation, violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. It also alleges that Secretary Zinke failed to perform the consultations required by the federal Endangered Species Act. In addition to these violations, this would be the first time that congressionally-designated wilderness lands would beremovedfrom the National Wilderness Preservation System, setting a precedent that would threaten all protected wilderness areas and all federal public lands in our nation.
This lawsuit is the latest episode in a 35-year campaign to build a road that would connect the fishing village of King Cove to Cold Bay, which has a major airport with direct service to Anchorage. Although road proponents claim that the road is needed for medical evacuations during frequent intense storms, a 30-year paper trail reveals that two Alaska governors, Senators Frank and Lisa Murkowski, and the Aleutians East Borough have promoted the road for commercial purposes to haul fish and workers for the largest cannery in Alaska that is owned by Japanese Peter Pan Seafoods. During this campaign, the 900 residents of King Cove have received at least $50 million federal dollars for upgrades to their health services, 17 miles of road with two hovercraft launch facilities, and the purchase of a $9 million hovercraft that performed flawlessly in 32 medical evacuations. They have since abandoned the hovercraft and refuse to consider other reasonable transportation alternatives evaluated bu the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. Completion of the proposed road would cost at least another $20 million federal dollars and require extremely expensive annual maintenance that would likely fail to keep the road passable during winter storms. The former local medical director for Indian Health Services has stated that attempting to travel the proposed road during winters storms would jeopardize the lives of patients and emergency personnel.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed three major scientific evaluations and environmental impact studies, all of which concluded that the proposed road would do irreparable harm to the habitat and wildlife of the internationally-recognized Izembek Refuge. The latest evaluation was the environmental analysis required by the inclusion of the proposed land trade in the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. Following a 4-year, exhaustive scientific study, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the proposed road would cause unacceptable and irreparable damage to habitat and wildlife and was not approved. This decision was upheld by then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. A federal lawsuit by the State of Alaska and local interests against the Secretary’s wise decision was eventually dismissed by the Court. Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and other environmental organizations had participated as intervenors on behalf of the the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Secretary in this successful effort to prevent this unnecessary and destructive road. Along with other organizations, we have taken the latest step in the decades-old battle to prevent the construction of an unnecessary, costly, and environmentally destructive road that not only threatens the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, but would set a dangerous precedent for all of our precious public lands.