Biden Admin Pulls Trump-Era Deal Allowing Road Through Alaska Wildlife Refuge
The Biden administration is withdrawing from a land exchange deal that would have given the green light for construction to begin on a road through the protected lands of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the administration’s withdrawal from the deal, initially made between the Interior Department and King Cove Corporation, in a statement on March 14.
Authorized by former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt under the Trump administration in July 2019, the exchange would have allowed an 11-mile gravel road to be built connecting the communities of King Cove—a remote town with a population of around 845 people—and Cold Bay, where there is an all-weather airport.
Specifically, the proposal would have transferred approximately 200 acres of land within the refuge to the State of Alaska to build the single-lane gravel, which would have been located around a mile north of the Kinzarof Lagoon.
Community members have argued that the road is needed to grant them significantly greater access to life-saving services, but environmental activists—who found an ally in former President Jimmy Carter—have called on officials to put an end to the deal.
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is protected by a 1980 law, the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act (ANILCA), which was signed by Carter and preserves the park and more than 100 million acres across the state.
Deal ‘Not Consistent With Departmental Policy’
Haaland said Monday that the Interior Department had determined that the Trump-era deal contained “several procedural flaws” and “was not consistent with Departmental policy.”
“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,” Haaland said.
“I reject that binary choice. 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 said the Interior Department is now reviewing previous proposals for the land exchange that are “rooted in a commitment to engagement in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation with Tribes, to protecting the national wildlife refuge system, and to upholding the integrity of ANILCA’s subsistence and conservation purposes.”
The decision to withdraw the deal marks a U-turn for the Biden administration, which previously defended the exchange in court in March 2021.
It also comes as President Joe Biden is facing mounting criticism from Democrats and environmental activists over his approval of a 30-year oil-drilling project in Alaska.
Willow Project Approved
The Department of the Interior approved the Willow Project on Monday, allowing oil giant ConocoPhillips to proceed with its $8 billion project within a section of the National Petroleum Reserve.
The company has forecast that the project will produce as much as 180,000 barrels of oil a day at its peak; marking about 1.5 percent of total U.S. oil production, and more than 600 million barrels of oil equivalent over its 30-year lifespan.
While proponents welcomed the approval, noting that it will bolster American energy and national security while also benefiting the local community via well-paying jobs, opponents argue the project will impact Biden’s ambitious climate goals.
In a joint statement, four progressive lawmakers—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—criticized the decision, noting that Biden has “committed to fighting climate change and advancing environmental justice” and that the approval of the Willow project “fails to live up to those promises.”
In a statement following Haaland’s announcement on Monday, Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a supporter of the Willow Project, said the decision to withdraw from the exchange will “push the entire process back to square one and place the lives of King Cove residents at risk today.”
“The fact is her decision to halt the land swap increases the likelihood that a resident in King Cove won’t be able to receive life-saving medical treatment in time due to bad weather at the village’s airstrip,” said Dunleavy. “It makes zero sense that Secretary Haaland would want to deprive Alaskans of the life-saving services the road would provide access to.”