U.S. withdraws Trump-era land deal in Alaska wildlife refuge

By Nichola Groom

(Reuters) - The Biden administration said on Tuesday it rescinded a land swap deal struck by former President Donald Trump's interior secretary that would have allowed a new road to cut through an Alaska wildlife refuge.

The decision comes as President Joe Biden's administration faces heavy criticism from environmental groups for its approval earlier this week of a massive oil and gas development in Alaska's Arctic.

In a statement, the Interior Department said Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew the 2019 land exchange deal between the agency and the Alaska native King Cove Corporation, but would be open to examining other proposals to replace it.

Supporters of the land swap in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Alaska have argued that a road is crucial to giving residents of King Cove, an Aleut village of about 1,000 people, access to an airstrip at the village of Cold Bay in case of medical or other emergencies.

Environmentalists have said a road would destroy valuable habitat for birds along Kinzarof Lagoon, and would set a dangerous precedent for other wildlife refuges.

The deal set by Trump's Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in 2019 was particularly controversial because it left open the door to commercial use of the road.

Haaland said the debate had "created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities."

She directed her agency to review previous land exchange proposals, including one that was rejected by the Obama administration in 2013 that would have allowed a road for primarily health and safety purposes.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Bill Berkrot)