Haaland reverses Trump-era Izembek road decision

By Scott Streater | 03/14/2023 06:10 PM EDT

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew a land swap approved by her predecessor considered necessary to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Emperor geese in flight over water.

Emperor geese in flight at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. K. Mueller/Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland late Tuesday revoked a Trump-era land swap that would have paved the way for a road to be built through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Instead, Haaland said the Interior Department will initiate a new environmental analysis to determine if a land exchange and potential gravel road comply with federal laws and regulations.

The Interior Department said it was doing so in large part because the 2019 land exchange orchestrated by former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was done “without public participation.” It also failed to analyze the potential effects of building a single-lane gravel road, about 10 miles long, on those who use the environmentally sensitive region for subsistence fishing and hunting, the department said.


The Izembek refuge provides important habitat for migratory birds like the emperor goose and black brant.

Bernhardt agreed to the land exchange with King Cove Corp. that involves swapping about 500 acres inside the Izembek refuge for roughly 5,000 acres of shoreline that would be added to the refuge. Bernhardt said he was responding to pleas from Alaska Natives who say the road is needed to allow the residents of King Cove access to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay, where those with medical emergencies can be transported to hospitals hundreds of miles away.

Haaland said in a statement that the choice between public safety and protecting the area that is a congressionally designated wilderness area is a false one.

“The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities. I reject that binary choice,” Haaland said.

The secretary added: “I am a lifelong conservationist, and I believe deeply in the need to protect our lands and waters and honor our obligations to Tribal Nations. Respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening — really listening — to Tribal communities.”

Haaland’s decision comes three months after the Biden administration’s Justice Department argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the land swap. The DOJ has said it wants to preserve the right of a secretary to issue such land swaps — even if the one in this case contradicts a 2013 decision by then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejecting a similar land exchange.

The appeals court has not yet ruled on the matter.

Now the issue is back in the hands of the Interior Department.

One of the chief issues it will consider is whether a land exchange and subsequent road company with the mandates of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

ANILCA, signed into law in 1980 by former President Jimmy Carter, was designed in large part to preserve and protect “nationally significant natural, scenic, historic, archaeological, geological, scientific, wilderness, cultural, recreational and wildlife values.” It established 104 million acres of “conservation system units” in the state, such as wilderness areas and wildlife refuges, including the Izembek refuge.

“It’s great news that Interior has rescinded the Izembek land deal and removed its threat to these important wetlands and the Izembek isthmus,” said Bridget Psarianos, a senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which sued to challenge the Bernhardt land swap on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups.

Psarianos added: “The integrity and health of this area supports incredible biodiversity and an array of interconnected plants and animals that provide subsistence resources to local communities. Congress designated Izembek as a place to be protected now and for generations to come. Interior has chosen to stop the land swap which is a good first step to ensuring this area remains protected.”