Feds launch review of land exchange proposal needed to build road in Alaska's Izembek refuge

May 21—The Biden administration last week launched an environmental review of a potential land exchange needed to support construction of an 11-mile gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a project the Southwest Alaska village of King Cove has sought for decades to improve access to medical care. The new review opens a public comment period on the proposed exchange.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who visited Bethel this week on her second official trip to Alaska as secretary, announced plans for the review in March and withdrew a land exchange approved by the Trump administration, raising concerns in King Cove and with state officials that she won't ultimately approve a land swap.

A spokesperson with the Interior Department said in an email that with the new review, called a supplemental environmental impact statement, the agency is "committed to engaging in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation with Tribes, upholding the mission and intent of the national wildlife refuge system for the American people, and delivering on the tenets that guide land management in Alaska, as laid out in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act."

The controversial road would slice through the refuge at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, some 600 miles southwest of Anchorage. The road has been at the center of a decades-long battle between the largely Indigenous people of King Cove, who say it will provide lifesaving access to a jet-accessible runway in Cold Bay, and environmental groups who say a road will harm the refuge.

The proposed land exchange would transfer 200 acres within the refuge to the state of Alaska for a road, while the federal government would receive more than 50,000 acres from the state and the King Cove Corp., the Alaska Native corporation for the village.

Haaland in March withdrew a different land swap for the road that had been authorized in 2019 by the Trump administration, after Interior determined it contained procedural flaws and did not properly consider subsistence impacts. That has raised concerns in the village of 850 and at the state level that Haaland does not intend to approve the road when the environmental review is complete.

Haaland, the nation's first Indigenous Interior secretary, has signaled support for the road. She said in a written statement in March that the debate around the road has created a "false choice" between conservation values and federal commitments to tribes. She said "respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening — really listening — to Tribal communities."

A battle over the land deal is playing out at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case brought in 2019 by conservation groups to stop the Trump-era approval. The Interior Department in March filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying its decision to withdraw the approval made the case moot.

The state and the King Cove village corporation have filed separate motions in the case to stop the proposed dismissal of the case. They say the appeals court should issue a decision on the land exchange.

"The secretary is without authority to breach a fully executed land exchange agreement with an Alaska Native corporation," the state says in its filing.

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan also weighed in on the issue this week, saying in a prepared statement that Haaland has not listened to King Cove residents and has "proceeded to reverse course on a land exchange that would have provided King Cove residents life-saving medical care access."

Comments can be submitted online to regulations.gov, at docket FWS-R7-NWRS-2023-0072.

They can also be submitted by U.S. mail to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS-R7-NWRS2023-0072; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/3W; 5275 Leesburg Pike; Falls Church, VA 22041 — 3803.