Why Alaska’s governor plans to use a 150-year-old law to sue the federal government


Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. (Kristine Sowl, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell announced Monday that the state plans to sue the federal government over a road, and he plans to use a 150-year-old law to do it.

Residents of King Cove — population 892 — say they need a one-lane gravel road to connect with Cold Bay, a city less than 30 miles away as the crow flies but separated by a famous wildlife refuge. Frequent bad weather often makes flying unfeasible, so the village needs access to Cold Bay’s larger airstrip for emergencies, residents argue. But wildlife advocates say it would hurt what is a world-class habitat—the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, home to virtually the entire population of the Pacific black brant as well as other types of birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has over several decades argued that such a road would cause “irreversible’ damage to the habitat and reaffirmed that belief most recently in February. Still, some of the residents were in D.C. last month to make their case to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She stood by the department’s decision not to allow the road, prompting Parnell’s threat of a lawsuit.

“In just the last several weeks, serious health-related evacuations have shown just how critical a road for medical evacuations is for residents,” he said in his  statement Monday, officially providing a 180-day notice of the state’s intent to sue. The suit rests on a 148-year-old mining regulation: Revised Statute 2477 of the Mining Act of 1866. The controversial law was created to promote development of the West, according to a Bureau of Land Management fact sheet.


Black brant over Izembek Lagoon in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. (K.Mueller/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It “minimized the administrative burden on the federal government to authorize the construction of each highway across the largely undeveloped lands in the West. However, while the law accomplished its goal of facilitating development of the West, the general wording is a source of disagreement and controversy.”

Revised Statute 2477, which has been interpreted as granting authority to establish roads where informal routes existed, has been a source of controversy for years despite being just 20 words long. (It states: “The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.”) The statute was repealed in 1976, but the law’s protections were preserved for routes that existed before then.

In a 1993 report, the Interior Department found that most of the controversy arising from the grandfathered protection to that point had come from Utah, but Alaska was also singled out for its unique reliance on R.S. 2477. It was prompted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service preparing land-use plans for refuges and parks there in the mid-1980s.

The proposed road. (Office of Gov. Sean Parnell)
The proposed road. (Office of Gov. Sean Parnell)

“This federal action precipitated the State of Alaska’s interest in using R.S. 2477 to obtain rights-of-way over federal lands as state and local government in the Lower 48 States had during their own early developmental periods,” the report’s authors wrote. Some claims have been upheld, but the federal government has refused others. In fact, such a refusal to recognize a right-of-way prompted a separate suit last spring, Alaska’s attorney general wrote in his 2013 review:

In April 2013 we filed a lawsuit against the federal government and others to quiet title to a number of rights-of-way near Chicken, Alaska. Alaska acquired these rights-of-way under Revised Statute 2477, but the federal government fails to recognize that grant and has interfered with Alaskans’ right of access. As a state, it is important that we assert our interest in these vital access routes though much work remains to be done.

Ultimately, the fate of the refuge and the road may rest on the courts—which claimed authority to rule on such claims in a 2005 10th Circuit Court Ruling—and how they interpret a 148-year-old, one-sentence statute.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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