Alaskan environmentalists sue Department of Interior

On Jan. 21, nine environmental organizations sued the U.S. Department of the Interior, its secretary Ryan Zinke and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

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The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in the falltime. Photo credit: Kristine Sowl/USFWS

Nine days prior to the filing of the complaint, Zinke had signed a controversial deal allowing the Alaskan village of King Cove to build a 12-mile road connecting the village to an existing road system within the wildlife refuge. He also approved the initial plan for the construction work developed by the King Cove Corporation.

Currently, the remote town on the Aleutian Peninsula is only accessible by air and sea. The villagers requested the road for medical reasons.

Laura Tanis, communications director of the Aleutians East Borough, said that there is a health clinic in the village, but medical care is very limited.

“This is a matter of life and death for the people of King Cove. Since 1980, 18 people have died either because of plane crashes or an inability to get timely medical treatment,” Tanis said. “King Cove’s clinic has no full-time physician, so residents… must travel 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures.”

The conflict over the proposed road started more than three decades ago. Proposals for the construction works have been turned down for years due to environmental protection reasons.

The lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior is led by the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, an environmental advocacy group aiming to protect Alaska’s wildlife heritage.

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David Raskin, president of the organization, strongly opposes the planned road construction.

“[The road] is unnecessary,” Raskin said. “[The citizens of King Cove] got $37 million to upgrade the medical clinic… and buy a $9 million hovercraft for these medical evacuations in bad weather.”

Laura Tanis explained that the modernizations are still not sufficient to guarantee appropriate healthcare for the villagers.

“While improvements were made to the clinic, it still has no full-time physician. The clinic does not have respirators or anesthesia,” Tanis said.

The operation of the hovercraft was stopped after a few years. According to Tanis, the hovercraft proved to be unreliable in rough seas and could not operate in winds above 30 miles per hour, which the village frequently experiences.

“All other possible transportation options between King Cove and Cold Bay have been studied or attempted and were proven to be incapable of providing safe, reliable access to the Cold Bay Airport,” Tanis said. “The location for the road has been carefully studied and designed to cause the least amount of environmental disturbance.”

The corporation estimates that about 10 cars per day would potentially travel the single-lane road to the Cold Bay Airport.

Scientific analyses conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do not support the proposed land exchange and road through the wildlife refuge.

Raskin called the plan for the road “unconscionable,” emphasizing the drastic effects the road would have on the natural habitats of many animals.

“The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is an internationally recognized migratory bird refuge,” Raskin said. “It is critical to the surviving of many bird species that we all depend upon.”

A road would disturb the sensitive wetlands and threaten the biodiversity of the area, environmentalists argue.

“This is the first time since the Wilderness Act was adopted that would allow wilderness to be taken out of a congressionally designated wildlife area. This has never happened before,” Raskin said.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave protection to about 9.1 million acres of federal land and defined wilderness in the U.S.; the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is included in the protected areas.

The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The environmental groups fear that the land-swap deal could set a dangerous precedent threatening wilderness in refuges, parks and other public lands across the country.

In their 22-page complaint, the environmentalists accuse Zinke of improperly using parts of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act for the controversial deal.

In a press release by the Department of the Interior, secretary Zinke underlined the importance of medical care over environmental protection.

“Above all, the federal government’s job is to keep our people safe and respect our treaty commitments with Native Americans and Alaska Natives,” Zinke said. “Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that’s just wrong. The people of King Cove have been stewarding the land and wildlife for thousands of years and I am confident that working together we will… continue responsible stewardship while also saving precious lives.”

In addition to the Alaska-based Friends of Wildlife Refuges, nationwide organizations like the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity act as plaintiffs in the case.