February Advocacy Report: Looking forward, working hard

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

We continue to wait for the U.S. Senate to confirm Acting Director Martha Williams as the new Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). We expect that after her confirmation, the Executive Review Board will act to appoint a successor to Regional Director Greg Siekaniec who retired last August. We also hope that a Special Assistant for Alaska will be appointed soon..

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 doomed after Senators Manchin and Sinema failed to support the bill passed by the House. We are hopeful that a compromise version will eventually be approved, and the Arctic Refuge lease repeal will remain in a revised version of the legislation. This may not occur before summer, if at all. In the meantime, USFWS and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have begun the lengthy and expensive process of developing the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by order of the Secretary. This is an unfortunate waste of scarce resources if it is ultimately rendered moot by repeal of the leasing program. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) filed suit to stop the process and was joined by the State. We anticipate that many conservation organizations will intervene on behalf of the government.

The threat to the Coastal Plain continues after the completion 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 composed a draft of 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. However, they are waiting to receive additional evidence from the applicant to support their claim.
Award-winning Arctic Refuge Manager Steve Berendzen transfers on February 11 to manage a refuge complex in the Lower 48. He will be greatly missed for his outstanding work to protect the Arctic Refuge from the continuing threats of development and incursions into its pristine wilderness.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
There still is no word from the court since oral arguments were held before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on August 4 concerning the defendants’ appeal of our second successful lawsuit that stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. We also await a final decision by USFWS regarding the State’s appeal of the denial of helicopter use in the designated Wilderness. The findings by the Acting Regional Director in Anchorage have been sent to Acting USFWS Director Martha Williams and then to the Assistant Secretary and the Deputy Secretary. A decision probably will not be issued until Martha Williams is confirmed but we expect that the State’s appeal will be denied. Also, we have no word on plans for the Secretary of the Interior’s visit to King Cove.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
The comment period closed on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Draft Environmental Statement (DEIS) 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 and underwater pipelines, pose a high risk of oil spills, and greatly increase industrial transportation in Lower Cook Inlet that could seriously impact lands and wildlife.in the Maritime Refuge. We await the issuance of the EIS.

Other Refuges
We have no significant updates on Kenai Refuge regulations or Yukon Flats Refuge oil exploration in Doyon inholdings.

Sturgeon Decision
We are unaware of further action following the Supreme Court decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, 139 S. Ct. (1066) 2019. Based on this ruling and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) Sec. 103, the State of Alaska asserted primary jurisdiction over navigable waters on federal lands in Alaska.