Interior Secretary hasn’t made decision on Izembek refuge road issue

A landscape shot of a coastal community.
King Cove residents argue they need the road to access the all-weather airport in Cold Bay, but environmentalists believe it will do irreparable harm to critical wildlife habitat. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KUCB)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has not decided the position she will take on a proposed land exchange aimed at building a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska, a U.S. government attorney said Wednesday in arguing the position taken by Haaland’s predecessor.

Michael T. Gray, a Justice Department attorney, told a federal appeals court panel Haaland planned to review the record and visit King Cove, the community at the heart of the dispute, before making a decision. He said the position he was arguing had not been “taken back in any way.”

Gray last month sent a letter to the clerk of court for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stating that Haaland was expected to visit King Cove in September. The letter outlined the position that a decision on whether to enter into a land exchange agreement was a policy call on which different Interior secretaries could reach different conclusions, “even on the same record.”

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Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw on Wednesday called the letter “perplexing.”

She pressed Gray for a timeline and said going forward with the case seemed a “tremendous ask” of the judiciary while Haaland was deciding what position to take.

Gray later said he would not oppose a stay of proceedings. But an attorney for the state, Sean Lynch, expressed concerns with a stay. The state has supported the position defending the land exchange, and Lynch said he believed King Cove Corp., another intervenor in the case, would oppose a stay.

King Cove residents have long sought a land connection through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport. Supporters of the effort see it as a life and safety issue.

RELATED: Interior stalls aerial survey in Izembek Refuge, says Murkowski

The refuge, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, contains an internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl.

In 2013, Interior Department officials declined a land exchange, with then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling the refuge an “extraordinary place” and saying she supported the conclusion that building a road through the refuge would cause “irreversible damage.”

Under the Trump administration, efforts to move forward with a land exchange faced legal challenges, including the current case, brought by a coalition of conservation groups.

A federal judge last year set aside a proposed 2019 agreement between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation. The judge found in part that then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had failed to provide adequate reasoning to support a change in policy in favor of a land exchange and road.

RELATED: Interior Department Secretary to visit King Cove amid road dispute

Conservation groups also said the agreement did not include a provision limiting use of a road to health and safety purposes.

Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz could not provide details Wednesday of any travel plans by Haaland. But Schwartz, by email, confirmed that Haaland had not made a final decision regarding a position on the land exchange issue. She said Haaland had told Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski she would travel to Alaska to inform that decision.

Murkowski has supported road access, which she has said would provide “a lifeline for emergency medical care.”

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