A federal judge has dealt a likely deathblow to a land-swap deal approved by the Interior Department last year that was meant to clear the way for a 12-mile single-lane gravel road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, in a ruling issued today, threw out then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's approval last year of an agreement to convey up to 500 acres within the refuge to an Alaska Native corporation in exchange for as yet unknown land in the area.
Gleason ruled that the land exchange agreement violated the Administrative Procedure Act because Zinke failed to justify the change in policy from the Obama administration, which found the road would be too destructive.
The people of King Cove, Alaska, have been petitioning the federal government for decades, in one manner or another, to allow a medical evacuation route, allowing them to fly out of an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay to hospitals in Anchorage. But any land route has to run through the refuge.
Conservation groups had challenged the land-swap agreement on various grounds, including that it violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. They were particularly concerned about the decision's impact on federally listed species such as Steller's eiders and northern sea otters.
"The Exchange Agreement does not contain any acknowledgment that the Secretary's decision to enter into that agreement constitutes a fundamental change in agency policy," wrote Gleason, an Obama appointee.
"Instead," she continued, "in entering into the Exchange Agreement, the Secretary reverses the previous policy of the DOI without any reasoned explanation for the change of course with respect to the existence of viable alternatives to a road."
The ruling is a stunning rebuke of the efforts by the Trump administration, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and the Interior Department to complete a land swap and allow construction of the route through the wildlife refuge.
Interior declined to comment on the ruling or indicate whether the government plans to challenge it at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The decision is a major disappointment for supporters of the road, who say it is needed as a medical evacuation route.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, praised it as a critical rebuke of the Trump administration's public lands policies.
"The Court's decision today provides an important and essential check on Interior's public land giveaway," Trustees for Alaska attorney Katie Strong, who represented plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. "The agency's attempt to skirt the law to benefit private or commercial interests disregards the intention of Congress and the purpose of the Refuge System itself."