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February Advocacy Report

by Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

For the last few months, we’ve outlined the funding challenges facing wildlife refuges in Alaska. Congress is now four full months into the new fiscal year (FY2024 runs October 1, 2023-September 30, 2024) and has yet to pass a full-year funding bill. The chaos caused by a failure to ensure adequate and timely funding to government agencies means that refuges and regional offices don’t know if they will be able to afford to fill vacant positions or complete refuge projects. 

Some deputy positions at refuges across the state have been filled recently, including deputy managers at Koyukuk, Alaska Peninsula, Arctic, and Selawik National Wildlife Refuges, but many biology, visitor services, and other positions remain vacant. Congress needs to act soon to avoid a government shutdown in March. 

On a local refuge front, news is quiet. Refuge staff are working through a supplemental environmental impact statement at Izembek Refuge, and we don’t expect to see anything from that plan until the end of the year. We are watching a lawsuit filed by the Alaska Industrial and Development Export Authority (AIDEA) to challenge the dismissal of their leases in the Arctic Refuge.  We will be in touch with Friends members in the next month or two when that suit starts moving through the courts. 

And finally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has hired Karlin Itchoak, formerly with The Wilderness Society, as the new Chief of Refuges in Alaska. This position supervises all the refuge managers in Alaska.  We look forward to working with Karlin as he gets settled into his new role this week!

Thank you for your advocacy and your support for all of Alaska’s wildlife refuges!




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January Advocacy Report

by Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

With the holidays wrapped up, and Congress back in session, talk has returned to the budget and potential budget cuts. We as Friends can’t do much about whether or not Congress argues itself into a government shutdown, but we DO have the ability to advocate and lobby– yes, lobby– on behalf of wildlife refuges.

Two budget deadlines are upcoming. The first is January 19, includes four of the twelve appropriations subcommittees, but it does not include wildlife refuges. The second deadline is February 2, and includes the remaining eight subcommittees, such as the Interior Department and refuges. House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed this week to a top-line budget number, or basically a cap of what can be spent government-wide this year. We have not seen an Interior-specific number yet. This top-line agreement is a good first step towards preventing a government shutdown, but it is no guarantee.

The biggest concern Friends have regarding the budget for the rest of this fiscal year (FY2024, which ends September 30) is that the House is determined to cut funding. Refuges are already badly understaffed and desperately in need of additional funding. The only way we can get more is to lobby for it. The House included a 10% cut to refuges in their FY2024 budget bill, which would hollow out the System and close dozens of refuges. The Refuge System did an examination of their 568 refuge units several years ago, and determined the true need of the Refuge System (nationwide, not just in Alaska) at $1.5 billion. Current funding is ⅓ of that– $541 million.

The best way you can help Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges in the next few weeks is to ask Senator Murkowski , Senator Sullivan , and Representative Peltola to keep refuge funding strong. Tell them a personal story about how important these refuges are to you and ask them to keep funding strong, at least equal to the current funding levels of $541 million. The links attached to each of their names will take you to the email form on their websites.

Thank you for your advocacy and your support for all of Alaska’s wildlife refuges!




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December Advocacy Report

by  Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

Happy Holidays! With Congress scheduled to go into recess at the end of this week (December 15th), we are looking at a slow pace on Capitol Hill for the next month. 

On November 30th, a hearing was held in the House of Representatives on a bill introduced by Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) and supported by both Senators Murkowski and Sullivan that would reinstate the oil development leases in the Arctic Refuge which the Biden Administration recently canceled. Members from the environmental community testified against such a bill, and while it is likely to pass the House, it will probably not be brought up in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The more critical issue happening right now for wildlife refuges is the defunding of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. The System has lost nearly $200 million in capacity over the last twelve years, and this loss of funding is eating away at the ability of refuge managers in Alaska to keep and hire staff. Most Alaska refuges have half the number of staff they had a decade ago, and when folks retire or change jobs, their positions are not filled. And without adequate staffing levels, it is extremely difficult to maintain the programs that benefit the communities in and around refuges.  

For example, Yukon Flats and Kanuti Refuges are likely going to be complexed under one management team. As staff retire or move to different jobs, their positions remain vacant or are being taken off the books. These remote refuges, 12.7 million acres total (larger than the state of Maryland), will only have a few staff members. Other refuges are losing biologists, there are not enough pilots, and visitor services staff are in short supply. These Refuge staff members bring environmental education programs to schools and the community and  biological expertise and research ability. The loss of pilots and budget for flights means that remaining staff are unable to access the vast majority of their off-road refuges and wildlife surveys become impossible. 

Congress is in a budget-slashing mood, but we can’t let them eliminate all management on refuges. Staffing levels are so low right now that Alaska’s refuges are functioning at a bare minimum, with visitor centers only open for a few hours per day and programs are getting canceled all the time. Any more cuts are going to close visitor centers and eliminate wildlife surveys that are, in some cases, decades old. The situation is dire.  

Senator Murkowski is the Ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that determines funding for the Refuge System. She can change this, if she wanted to. She responds to her constituents. Can you take a few minutes to write to her to ask her to increase funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System to add at least $100 million to current budget levels? Her office address in Anchorage is 510 L Street, Suite 600, Anchorage, AK 99501.

Thank you!




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October Advocacy Report: Arctic Leasing UPDATES & ACTIONS for you to take!

by  Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy

Two big things are happening this month: hearings and the comment period for the Draft Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Congressional shenanigans over funding of the federal government. 

First, public hearings are underway on the SEIS regarding oil leases in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. 

  • Virtual public meetings – October 11th at 5pm and October 17th at 1pm. 

  • Anchorage – October 16 at 5 pm at the Loussac Library

  • Fairbanks rescheduled to October 23 at 5 pm at a location TBD.  

The comment deadline is October 23.  Please attend virtually or in person if you would like to learn more or comment on the alternatives that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management are looking at. The schedule and more information can be found here.

For more background on this issue, see the companion article.  Need help preparing comments?  Write to us at info@alaskarefugefriends.org and we will get back to you.

Please note that comments don’t have to be technical or detailed. You can simply express your preference for no leasing or drilling in the refuge, and state why you feel that way.

Second, funding for wildlife refuges is up in the air again. This next federal fiscal year runs October 1, 2023-September 30, 2024, and while refuges (and the rest of the federal government) are being funded by a bill that just extended last year’s funding by 45 days, this is not a permanent fix. All 16 national wildlife refuges in Alaska are underfunded to the point that many staffing positions are not being filled, and biological, management and visitor services work across Alaska is not being completed. 

It’s not just the current year’s funding issues that are a problem. Funding for refuges has been extremely low for more than a decade. In the past, refuges had enough staff to actually run programs. Each refuge had a biology team doing waterfowl, moose, or bear surveys. They had a visitor services team doing community outreach and education at the refuge and at community events and in schools. They had full maintenance teams to regrade dirt and gravel roads and maintain facilities and vehicles, or the R/V Tiglax. Today, refuges are facing losing their staff by combining with other refuges, known as “complexing”, and in most cases, they are already down to bare-bones teams of biologists and other staff members. Funding has been on the decline since FY2010, and the gap is only growing wider with the conflict on Capitol Hill this month. 

Alaska’s very own Senator Lisa Murkowski is the lead Republican on the Senate subcommittee that determines funding for Alaskan wildlife refuges. She needs to hear from her constituents that the current $541 million for wildlife refuges across the country is completely insufficient, and the true need for annual funding sits at $1.5 billion. We ask that you go to Senator Murkowski’s website and send her a message that refuges need an increase in funding. You can email her here. 

Thank you for continuing to be great advocates for Alaska’s wildlife refuges.

How did we get to oil leasing in the Arctic Refuge and what can you do about it?  Testify!

By Marilyn Sigman, Board President 

Oil and gas development has been threatening the Arctic Refuge since 1980, when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act (ANILCA) which protected much of the refuge but in Section 1002 opened up the possibility of oil development in the refuge’s coastal plain. In ANILCA, Congress also reserved the power to decide later whether to open it to drilling, a choice which was rejected for decades, until 2017. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to hold two lease sales no later than December 22, 2024, and added “provision of an oil and gas program” to the purposes of the refuge.   A Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed in September, 2019.

At the first lease sale, held on January 6, 2021, only 11 of the 22 tracts offered were sold.  After the sale, two of the bidders relinquished their leases, leaving the State of Alaska’s Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, as the sole lease owner.

Friends had joined a coalition that unsuccessfully sued the federal government to stop this first lease sale. We then intervened successfully in a lawsuit to defend the authority of the Secretary of Interior to suspend the leases in June 2021. Friends also signed on to a letter with other organizations urging the Biden Administration to: 1) cancel the 2021 leases; 2) prioritize completing a robust SEIS that will assess the climate impacts and compatibility with U.S. climate goals; and 3) recognize the human rights issues for the Alaska Native communities that rely on Arctic Refuge resources. 

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland initially suspended the leases after a determination of an inadequate NEPA review and an illegal sale, and then canceled them outright on September 6, 2023. She said at the time: “With today’s action, no one will have rights to drill in one of the most sensitive landscapes on Earth. Climate change is the crisis of our lifetime. And we cannot ignore the disproportionate impacts being felt in the Arctic. We must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem.”

The second lease sale is now proceeding as required by the 2017 Tax Act.  The Supplementary EIS (SEIS) is the Department of Interior’s attempt to remedy the inadequacies of the first EIS which led to the cancellation of the first leases. 

What’s Being Considered in the SEIS and how should we comment?
The BLM has listed out 4 Alternatives.  Alternatives B, C, and D propose leasing over a range of acreage from 49 to 100 percent of the 1.56 million-acre Coastal Plain. According to the SEIS, each of these three alternatives balances the five statutory purposes of the Arctic Refuge, the oil and gas leasing program and the four original purposes of conserving animals and plants in their natural diversity, ensuring subsistence hunting and gathering activities, protecting water quality and quantity, and fulfilling international wildlife treaty obligations.

Alternative A is the No-Action or no leasing Alternative, and would be our choice. The BLM, however, has determined that Alternative A does not meet the ‘purpose and need’ of the SEIS because it does not meet the requirements of the 2017 Tax Act to hold a lease sale, and is therefore not considering it. Friends have long opposed leasing of the Arctic Refuge, and will submit comments supporting action with the least impacts to the purposes for which Arctic Refuge was established. A robust showing of support from Alaskans for the strongest possible environmental protection of the Coastal Plain in your SEIS comments could discourage future investments in oil and gas leases in the Refuge and hopefully encourage BLM to reconsider their approach to Alternative A.

The Record of Decision that will follow the SEIS review will not authorize exploration and development but will determine which lands will be offered for lease and under what terms. Please see our advocacy column above for the schedule of public meetings on the SEIS and ways to submit comments by the deadline of October 23, 2023.


Photo: The Porcupine caribou herd travels ancient trails and fords many rivers to get to and from their calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain and their wintering area in the mountains of Alaska and Canada. It is the largest land migration in the world.  The calving grounds are under threat of oil and gas development in spite of the recent lease sale cancellations because of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which requires lease sales and made an oil and gas program a purpose. pc: Marilyn SIgman




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September Advocacy Report: Significant developments

by Friends Advocacy Committee

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
By far the most significant advocacy update this month was the cancellation of the oil and gas leases sold to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) back in January 2021. These leases were sold in an illegal lease sale during which no major oil companies bid. Two other smaller companies bid but later backed out of their leases, leaving AIDEA as the sole lease owner.  Fortunately, the Biden Administration took action on September 6th to protect the coastal plain and canceled the leases. The State of Alaska has challenged this cancellation, but Friends, along with many conservation organizations and Tribal governments, have applauded this step. 

Friends issued the following statement regarding the cancellation of the lease sale: We are thrilled that the Biden Administration has canceled these illegal leases. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to a rich biodiversity of wildlife that depend on the large stretches of intact habitat found in the coastal plain and beyond. We thank the President and Secretary Haaland for their support for protecting this jewel of the Refuge System.
 

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Since the March 14, 2023, decision by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to withdraw the proposed Trump administration land exchange that authorized a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Wilderness and the subsequent dismissal of the court case, we have continued to watch the next steps at Izembek. 

A Notice of Intent to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact  Statement (SEIS) was issued in May 2023, and Friends submitted comments to the Administration. As of the first week of September, the Department of the Interior (DOI) is still reviewing those comments and preparing their team to move forward on the SEIS, which is tentatively due in the summer of 2024. 

Friends remain concerned that Secretary Haaland could propose an alternative land exchange now that the previous case has been dismissed.  One of the major deficiencies cited by the Secretary in her March withdrawal was an absence of impact on subsidence resources associated with the proposed land exchange. The implication being that a land exchange may still be on the table, rather than a focus on non-road alternatives. 

Friends and the entire Izembek coalition firmly believe that any manner of land exchange outside of a Congressional or Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) framework is illegal as it threatens both critical habitat on the refuge as well as the nearly 150 million acres of federally protected conservation lands in Alaska protected by ANILCA.  Accordingly, we are asking that non-road alternatives to address the needs of King Cove be strongly considered just as they were in the original Environmental Site Assessment. We continue to speak with USFWS in Alaska and at Headquarters in DC regarding the SEIS. 




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June Advocacy Report: Friends coninues to make an impact.

by Mike Schantz, Friends Advocacy Committee

Arctic  Refuge
The federal lawsuit by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the State that challenged the moratorium on oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain continues. Friends, along with many conservation organizations and Tribal governments, have intervened on behalf of the Biden administration in this matter. AIDEA and the State filed their reply brief, and AIDEA requested oral argument, which is now scheduled for June 20, 2023

Izembek Refuge

On March 14, 2023, Secretary of the Interior Haaland withdrew the proposed Trump administration land exchange that authorized a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Wilderness.  This resulted in a motion to dismiss the appeal effort that resulted in the En Banc rehearing of the land exchange.

Subsequently on April 26, 2023, King Cove filed a motion in the Ninth Circuit Appeals contending the withdrawal of the land exchange was illegal and opposing the dismissal. This motion to dismiss was granted on June 15, 2023, with the Ninth Circuit saying that since the Secretary’s withdrawal of the land exchange, there is no action for the court to rule on. This ends just the latest chapter in our goal to protect the Izembek Refuge.

Going forward, our concern is that Secretary Haaland may propose an alternative land exchange now that the previous case has been dismissed. This concern is validated by the fact that a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to correct deficiencies in the 2019 land exchange process has been issued. One of the major deficiencies cited by the Secretary in the withdrawal was absence of impact on subsidence resources associated to the proposed land exchange. 

Friends and the entire Izembek coalition firmly believe that any manner of land exchange outside of a Congressional or Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) framework is illegal as it threatens both critical habitat on the refuge as well as the nearly 150 million acres of federally protected conservation lands in Alaska protected by ANILCA.  Accordingly, we are asking that non-road alternatives to address the needs of King Cove be strongly considere

Tetlin Refuge 
The Governmental Services Agency (GSA) conducted a scoping process this spring for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) evaluating alternatives for a new Alcan Port of Entry facility on the Canadian Border adjacent to Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge.  One of the prelimanary alternatives would remove 10 acres from the refuge eliminating a popular trailhead. Another alternative would move the border station four miles up the Alcan Highway from the actual US border putting the popular refuge recreation, subsistence and historical areas of Scottie and Desper creeks on the “wrong” side of the port of entry. This would no doubt impact staff, visitors and subsistence hunters’ use of refuge resources.  Friends provided comments on significant issues related to refuge impacts that must be addressed in the draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Progress of this project will be monitored carefully for impacts on the refuge.

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Over the past few years, Doyon Limited Corporation has performed shallow stratigraphic tests on Doyon and native owned land inholdings of the Yukon Flats Refuge.  The bulk of this testing activity occurred around the village of Birch Creek.  No results have been made public to date.  In the event Doyon advances oil and gas extraction activity in this area, we are concerned about impacts to the world-class wildlife and fisheries and subsistence resources in the refuge.  We will continue to monitor this situation.



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April Advocacy Report: Friends collaborates to make an impacr.

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

Arctic  Refuge
The federal lawsuit continues by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the State that challenged the moratorium on oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain. Friends had intervened along with many conservation organizations and Tribal governments on behalf of the Biden administration. AIDEA and the State filed their reply brief, and AIDEA requested oral argument, which the court will likely schedule now that their reply brief has been submitted. We await the announcement for the second lease sale required by the legislation.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) filed the Federal Register notice regarding the preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the December 2021 SF 299 application by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) for a winter right-of-way (ROW) across the tundra in a wilderness study area. The draft EA is scheduled for September 2023 followed by a public comment period.  The permit will require compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act regarding potential impacts on polar bears. We expect this to move to a full Environmental Impact Statement process that may result in a requirement for an incidental take permit, which could become a major problem for the ROW application.   It should be noted that the request for a winter right-of-way across the refuge may have implications for Alaska National Interests Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the Izembek road controversy. 

A draft report on the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas, is still under review. Under the solicitor’s opinion in the previous administration, the refuge is open to motorized vehicles, but there has been little activity to date. 

Izembek Refuge

On March 14, 2023, Secretary of the Interior Haaland withdrew the illegal Trump administration land exchange that authorized a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Wilderness. This paused the legal proceedings, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the Court to moot the case, which would end the lawsuit and nullify the land exchange. However, we expect that King Cove will oppose DOJ and ask the court to continue the case while King Cove works to get Secretary Haaland to propose another illegal land exchange. We are concerned that she will either do that or work with Senator Murkowski on legislation to do a land exchange by a similar process that former Secretary of the Interior Jewell denied. Meanwhile, Secretary Haaland has instructed the FWS to prepare a supplemental EIS to correct deficiencies in the Trump land exchange process, which is expected to begin within a month.

The Izembek coalition is working at all levels of the administration to convince Secretary Haaland to consider alternatives to a road, such as an all-weather ferry between King Cove and Cold Bay that would serve the entire region. Toward that goal, key members of the coalition had a productive meeting with Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau and other key Department of the Interior officials on April 8. A non-road alternative would put an end to the threats to Izembek Refuge, ANILCA, and up to 150 million acres of federal conservation lands currently protected by ANILCA.

 
Kenai Refuge 
No new threats to the Kenai 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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March Advocacy Report: Spring brings SOME good news

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

Arctic  Refuge
Trustees for Alaska and the Native Village of Venetie filed reply briefs in support of Department of Justice (DOJ) on February 17, 2023. DOJ had previously filed its opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the federal lawsuit by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the State that challenged the moratorium on oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain. Friends had intervened along with many conservation organizations and Tribal governments on behalf of the Biden administration. AIDEA and the State must file their reply brief by March 20. AIDEA also requested oral argument, which the court will likely schedule after their reply brief is submitted.
 
On February 8, 2023, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) filed a Federal Register notice regarding the preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the December 2021 SF 299 application by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) for a winter  right-of-way (ROW) across the tundra in a wilderness study area. The draft EA is scheduled for September 2023 followed by a public comment period.  The permit will require compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act regarding potential impacts on polar bears and a full Environmental Impact Statement process may result in a requirement for an incidental take permit, which could become a major problem for the ROW application.   It should be noted that the request for a winter right-of-way across the Refuge may have implications for Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the Izembek road controversy. 
 
A draft report on the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas, is still under review. Under the solicitor’s opinion in the previous administration, the Refuge is open to motorized vehicles, but there has been little activity to date.

Izembek Refuge
On December 13, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in its en banc review of the DOJ and State appeal of our second successful lawsuit that had stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed Izembek road. The decision to rehear the case en banc nullified the disastrous panel decision and began the road proponents appeal anew. The panel, a majority appointed by Trump, could issue a decision as early as this month. The Izembek coalition is working at all levels of the administration and Congress to convince Secretary Haaland to withdraw the illegal land exchange before Ninth Circuit issues a decision. That is the only way to immediately put an end to the threats to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and up to 150 million acres of federal conservation lands currently protected by ANILCA.
 
Kenai Refuge 
The Supreme Court on March 6, 2023, denied the State of Alaska’s writ of certiorari that sought a review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision that upheld the District Court decision that supported FWS hunting regulations.  This is a great win for the Kenai Refuge, its wildlife, and all who worked so hard to help this happen.
 
We also received the wonderful news that FWS withdrew the June 11, 2020, Trump administration proposed rule to amend the refuge-specific regulations for Kenai Refuge.  Based on the extensive public comments that Friends helped to organize, FWS reviewed the new information provided and determined that the best course of action was withdrawing the proposed rule.  
 
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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February Advocacy Report: Our work continues

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Department Of Justice (DOJ) filed its opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the federal lawsuit by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the State that challenged the moratorium on oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain. Friends had intervened along with many conservation organizations and Tribal governments on behalf of the Biden administration. Trustees for Alaska will be filing our reply brief this month in support of the DOJ.

On February 8, 2023, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) filed notice in the Federal Register regarding the preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the December 2021 SF 299 application by Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) for a winter Right- of-Way (ROW) across the tundra in a wilderness study area (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic). The draft EA is scheduled for September 2023 followed by a public comment period.  We expect this to be a lengthy process that will require compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act regarding potential impacts on polar bears and a full EIS process. This may result in a requirement for an incidental take permit, which could become a major problem for the ROW application. It should be noted that the request for a winter Right- of-Way across the Refuge may have implications for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the Izembek road controversy. 

A draft report on the Kaktovik claim of historical vehicle use for subsistence activities in the Arctic Refuge tundra, including wilderness study areas, is still under review. Under the solicitor’s opinion in the previous administration, the Refuge is open to motorized vehicles, but there has been little activity to date

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
On December 13, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in its en banc review of the appeal by the DOJ and the State of our second successful lawsuit that had stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed Izembek road. Their decision to rehear the case en banc nullified the disastrous panel decision and began the road proponents appeal anew. We were extremely fortunate to obtain the pro bono services of San Diego expert appellate attorney Jennifer Bennett, who brilliantly argued our case before the 11-judge panel that unfortunately included a majority of six recent appointees by former President Trump. Assuming the panel decision could come as early as late March, the Izembek coalition is working diligently to convince Secretary Haaland to withdraw the illegal land exchange before the Ninth Circuit issues a decision. That is the only way to immediately put an end to potential threats to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and more than 100 million acres of federal conservation lands currently protected by ANILCA

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
We have heard nothing concerning the October 27, 2022, State of Alaska writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision that supported our win in the District Court.  The State claims that the case raises questions of “exceptional importance” to states and the Ninth Circuit decision is “unsustainable on the merits.” It is noteworthy that Safari Clubs International did not join the State in this latest appeal. The Supreme Court rejects most petitions for review, and we expect the same in this case.

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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January Advocacy Report: The current state of Refuge System funding.

by Caroline Brouwer, Friends Board Member

We are dedicating this advocacy report to the current state of Refuge System funding.  Refuges across the nation are underfunded to the point of neglect and closure. Here in Alaska, Friends support 16 refuges that make up over 80% of the land acres in the Refuge System. Alaska refuges’ funding needs include climate science research and additional biologists and visitor services staff across all refuges, and additional dollars for maintenance of not just habitat, but infrastructure and roads. But perhaps most importantly, we need staff who can work with our local communities to ensure refuges meet the needs not only of our incredible wildlife, but the people who live near them. 

First, a few numbers: there are 95 million land acres in the Refuge System, 80 million of which are in Alaska (84% of the land mass of the Refuge System is in Alaska). There are an additional 750 million acres of vast stretches of ocean – both Pacific and Atlantic – in the refuge system, Alaska is the nursery for songbirds and waterfowl which migrate through or winter in the lower 48 and Hawai’i. Refuges provide a network of wildlife habitat that stretches for thousands of miles; these lands and waters are interconnected, and deserve protection and robust funding.

But there is not enough funding to take care of these lands and waters. Congress just passed a spending bill that increased the refuge system budget from $519 million to $542 million. Although it looks like a decent increase, it will be erased due to inflation and 1-2% staff pay increases. For the last dozen years, refuges have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in capacity, and we can see those losses on the ground. 

In the Lower 48, these funding decreases have meant closing whole programs like environmental education and visitor services. Most refuge units have no federal wildlife officers to stop poaching. A significant majority of refuges have no staff dedicated solely to that refuge, and are minimally managed. This all results in an erosion of habitat quality due to lack of biological data to inform management decisions, invasive species, wildlife harassment and poaching, the closure of school environmental programs, and on and on. 

Refuges in all 50 states are threatened by the effects of climate change, from saltwater inundation to melting permafrost to fires and floods, the impacts of invasive species that crowd out native species, and the increased use we have seen in recent years – over 65 million people visit refuges each year.

In Alaska, these funding decreases right now mean that the regional office is being forced to complex refuges, which means a refuge that formerly had dedicated staff now shares its staff with at least one other refuge. Alaskan refuges are massive – in many cases the size of entire states in the Lower 48. They are complicated to manage, and each one needs its own dedicated staff to manage that complexity. Innoko, Koyukuk, and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges are already complexed. And now, funding levels are so low that Kanuti and Yukon Flats Refuges are in discussion to be complexed. Kanuti, for example, is the size of the largest of the Lower 48 refuges (Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada at 1.6 million acres). Complexing is only the right answer if we accept that refuges should be underfunded in perpetuity. Instead, we need to focus on addressing the overall funding issue and bring Refuge System funding up to a sustainable level.

So how much money does the Refuge System really need? Well, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been examining these numbers for the last year, talking to each of the eight regional offices around the country to figure out the true need of the System. The answer? $1.5 billion dollars. That need is nearly three times the current funding levels. 

Full funding of the Refuge System would mean that not only are wildlife protected, but there is enough funding available for infrastructure repairs, construction, road maintenance, community engagement, environmental education, and support for volunteers. Anyone who has visited a national park has seen educational signage, welcoming staff, well maintained infrastructure, and auto tour routes. The Park Service also has a budget 6 times larger than the Refuge System, and the vast majority of refuges do not receive anywhere near the level of funding as parks do.

The Refuge System is an American treasure. – the largest system of public lands set aside for wildlife in the world. We owe it to ourselves to maintain it. We all know that Congress is not going to suddenly fund the System at $1.5 billion, but our goal is to increase current funding by $200 million each year until that goal is met. The 118th Congress was just sworn in a few days ago.  We will be in touch with next steps for increasing funding for the Refuge System later in the spring when Congress begins their appropriations process. 




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