The Interior Department is preparing to set aside a decades-old ban on development in federally protected wilderness areas by pursuing a controversial proposal to build a nearly 12-mile road through a wildlife refuge in Alaska.
The project in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has long been a priority for Alaska officials, who say it is a “lifesaving” link needed to connect a remote Aleutian Islands town of 925 people with the rest of the state. The proposal, which entails turning federal land over to a tribal corporation, fits neatly with the Trump administration’s broader goal of giving more control to local communities like King Cove.
Yet environmentalists, several native Alaskan tribes and other critics warn that the road could disrupt the habitats of a variety of animals, most notably migratory birds that use the refuge as a crucial stopover on their marathon journeys along the Pacific Coast of North America. And allowing the project would violate the founding principle of federal wilderness — areas that are to remain pristine, off-limits to vehicles — and would set a precedent that could endanger other refuges, opponents say.
“If they can pull this off in Alaska, the entire Lower 48 is at risk,” said Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, whose group obtained documents detailing Interior’s efforts under the Freedom of Information Act.
Those documents, primarily internal agency emails, reveal how much discussion is intentionally taking place out of public view as federal, state, local and tribal officials work to approve a land exchange. Were the targeted terrain owned by the King Cove Corporation, that would clear the way for construction through the refuge to join up roads on either side.
The one-lane stretch of gravel would bisect an expanse of tundra, lagoons and other waterways that provide a vital feeding ground for migrating birds as well as bears, caribou and other species. Izembek was created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, and two decades later Congress designated all but 15,000 of its 315,000 acres as wilderness. In spring and fall, nearly all of the world’s population of emperor and Pacific black brant geese stops to devour the refuge’s eelgrass beds for sustenance. In winter, tens of thousands of the threatened Steller’s eider sea ducks stay and molt there.
But Aleutians East Borough communications director Laura Tanis, whose local government assembly encompasses King Cove, described the road as an issue of equity.
“The residents of King Cove are Americans,” Tanis said. “They deserve what virtually all Americans have: the certainty and the peace of mind that when they need to travel for medical emergencies, scheduled medical appointments, school sports and other activities, they can count on getting to their hub airport safely, reliably and affordably.”
The 1964 Wilderness Act bars new roads and the use of motorized vehicles in areas designated under the law except in rare instances — such as to provide access for the development of existing mining claims — and there appears to be no precedent for the executive branch permitting those activities for other reasons. The Wilderness Society and other groups successfully blocked the Forest Service last year from authorizing four miles of road construction in Montana’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to access a long-dormant gold mine.
Congress, though, has always enjoyed broader latitude because of its legislative role. Lawmakers in 2014 authorized minor adjustments to a wilderness boundary in Washington’s North Cascades National Park so a proposed road could be rerouted farther away from a flood-prone river. Nothing has been built yet.
The question of how best to address the needs of tiny King Cove, located on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, has been politically fraught for decades. Residents have lobbied federal officials to develop a road through the Izembek refuge so they could travel by land to a major regional airport in neighboring Cold Bay. Between 1980 and 1994, 12 people died during aerial medical evacuations en route to that hub airport, and while no residents have died during such evacuations since, local leaders say there have been many close calls.
The issue temporarily held up the 2013 confirmation of Sally Jewell as interior secretary in the Obama administration after Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska) threatened to not allow a vote unless Jewell agreed to authorize the road.
The federal government has spent more than $50 million since 1998 to help King Cove, funding a modern telemedicine clinic and a hovercraft that could cover the distance between the two towns in 20 minutes. Multiple federal analyses have suggested alternatives to a new road — such as a marine ferry to replace the hovercraft residents got rid of several years ago — as the preferred policy option.
Tanis said that maintaining a ferry “would not be affordable” and that the region’s severe winds “would prevent the ferry from operating at times.” She said that expense and reliability were also why the town stopped using the hovercraft, which performed more than 30 evacuations between 2007 and 2010.
The documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make clear that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has elevated the issue to one of the agency’s top priorities, and his appointees have taken deliberate steps to conceal the plan from the public.
At one point, a refuge official relayed his conversation with a department attorney about questions Zinke raised over public review of agency action related to Alaska’s survey of a possible road through Izembek.
“He indicated the Secretary would like to see folks on the ground doing the survey in the next couple of days,” the official emailed colleagues. “He did not seem to [sic] excited about the direction that it was going out for public comment.”
In a separate exchange three days later, a senior Interior Department attorney in Alaska emailed another high-ranking official there to clarify that the land swap proposed by the town’s tribal corporation should be kept under wraps. The corporation president had suggested exchanging two parcels of tribal land, totaling 2,604 acres along the refuge’s southern boundary on Cold Bay, for federal land within the wilderness area.
“I’m not sure if you were provided a copy of the letter from King Cove Corporation to Secretary Zinke requesting a land exchange so here it is,” the lawyer wrote. “I understand it [sic] King Cove is not going to make this request public but rather let the Department roll it out when it is ready.”
Department officials repeatedly noted Zinke’s prominent role. “I verified that the land exchange idea and ‘push’ is from the Secretary’s office,” a staffer from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s realty and conservation division in Anchorage wrote in an April 26 email.
And the special-use permit that Fish and Wildlife gave state transportation officials in June to conduct the road survey stated: “The Secretary of the Interior mandated that the Fish and Wildlife Service explore the option of a land trade between the Izembek Refuge and the King Cove Corporation.”
The Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment.
While a land exchange could be achieved through Congress — and a bill approving one passed the House in July along party lines — the measure faces opposition in the Senate.
Congress directed Interior in 2009 to study whether it served the public interest to construct a road through the refuge. Four years later, the department produced an environmental-impact statement that concluded that the project should not be pursued because many species would be harmed, as the road’s construction, use and maintenance would disturb and fragment their habitat.
Many federal officials, as well as some officials from Cold Bay, also questioned whether it would be practical to make the two-hour drive during severe winter storms, when snow drifts block roads and impair visibility. Peter Mjos, the former U.S. Indian Health Service medical director for the King Cove area, told Interior in 2013 that “the proposed road is a calamity-in-waiting” and would actually jeopardize lives.
This spring, Fish and Wildlife Service officials produced an updated analysis of the two routes Alaska is contemplating through the refuge. It concluded that both would have “major” impacts on brants, tundra swans, emperor geese, bears, fish and, potentially, caribou.
“Both routes are equally destructive to the refuge’s purposes,” one official wrote in an April 28 email.
The email correspondence sometimes suggests that career officials were concerned that they maintain the appearance of having not yet made a decision. As the agency conducted an analysis required for any proposed refuge management activities that violate the Wilderness Act, one official cautioned colleagues in a June 23 email that it is “not a justificatory process. There could be consequences if we are seen to be violating this process.”
In a May 24 letter to Zinke, the president of the King Cove Corporation, which had continued to appeal the Obama administration’s decision blocking the road project, wrote that the land exchange “could also lead to a settlement” of its lawsuit. On Aug. 11, the case was dropped.
Jewell, who visited both King Cove and Cold Bay with Murkowski in 2013, said in an interview Wednesday that she and other federal officials had taken considerable steps to solicit public input during deliberations on the proposed project. During her tour, she recalled, children from each grade in King Cove’s elementary school “stared me down” and read letters on why they needed a road.
“I don’t know how [the Trump administration] could do this — to undo wilderness and undo a refuge to such extent — without an open public process,” Jewell said.
“There’s over $50 million that we, the taxpayers, have paid to not put a road through a critical environmental area that has been identified and protected since the 1940s,” she said. “What the government has done for the village of King Cove is so much more already than what the government has done already for just about any other village in Alaska. It is frustrating that the efforts made never seem to be good enough.”