Interior secretary rejects Izembek Refuge land exchange but commits to new process to get a road for King Cove

King Cove. Photo: Aleutians East Borough.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday ended the government’s defense of a land exchange agreement that would have allowed the Alaska Peninsula community of King Cove to build a road to reach an all-weather airport. But she also pledged to launch a new process to get a road for King Cove.

“I have instructed my team to immediately launch a process to review previous proposals for a land exchange,” Haaland said in an emailed statement.

Haaland’s action – essentially conceding in a lawsuit that aims to block the road – starts yet another phase in the decades-long effort by the people of King Cove to get a road to Cold Bay, which they say will save lives by allowing people to fly to a hospital even when the weather is bad.

Road proponents are hopeful that Haaland is sincere about trying to help.

“We have to believe that she is,” said King Cove Corp. CEO Della Trumble, who has lobbied for the road for decades. “We agreed to work with her on it.”

Trumble said that Haaland spoke to local leaders Tuesday with emotion in her voice.

It’s personal for Haaland. She is the first Indigenous secretary of the Interior, and the people of King Cove are primarily Indigenous, too.

The community of about 800 is at the end of the Alaska Peninsula, where the mainland gives way to the Aleutian Chain. It is only reachable by boat, or by its small airstrip, which is frequently weathered in. That can be said of many Alaska towns and villages. But King Cove is unique because it’s near a 10,000-foot runway, at the former Cold Bay Air Force Station, and residents would like to drive to it.

The sticking point, as always, is that about 10 miles of the road will have to go through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, through land officially designated as wilderness — the highest level of protection.

Conservation groups highlight the area’s importance to migrating birds and call it “one of America’s most ecologically significant refuges.” They’ve repeatedly gone to court to block the road. The latest case is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has championed the project since her early days in Congress. She said she’s not sure what to make of Haaland’s announcement. Murkowski said the pledge to help King Cove was delivered “with a commitment and a resolve that I had not heard before.”

Still, the senator remains wary.

“The people of King Cove had been through so much and have been led down a road of false promises for far too long,” Murkowski said. “This cannot be a false promise.

The new process, Haaland’s email says, will be “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.”

(ANILCA is the 1980 Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, which created parks and refuges across Alaska, and decreed their uses.)

The Interior Department says it intends to initiate an environmental analysis that will reconsider the 2013 land exchange that Sally Jewell, an Interior secretary in the Obama administration, rejected.

Haaland’s announcement is winning favorable reviews from environmental groups.

“We applaud Secretary Haaland for withdrawing the illegal, Trump-era land exchange that would have put at risk the lands, waters, and resources of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska,” said League of Conservation Voters Senior Vice President Tiernan Sittenfeld. “Izembek is … home to world-class wetlands that support millions of migrating birds, fish, and caribou. It should be protected for future generations.”

Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Wilderness League, two of the groups suing to block the Trump administration’s land exchange, also praised the announcement, though the statement from Defenders of Wildlife called it “troubling” that the Interior secretary is still contemplating a land exchange to build a road.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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