Lawyers for King Cove are pushing back against a Thursday decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that effectively permits the U.S. government to withdraw from a land swap that would have allowed for construction of the controversial King Cove road.
The Eastern Aleutian community of around 750 people has wanted to build a road to the airstrip in Cold Bay for decades, which they say would provide access to emergency medical care. But different conservation groups have pushed back, because the road would pass through a national wildlife sanctuary.
Unlike King Cove, Cold Bay has an all-weather airport, access to which would save lives, according to proponents of the road.
Neither community has a hospital, making air travel crucial for medical evacuations.
But the proposed 11-mile gravel road would have to cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — home to one of the world’s largest eelgrass beds — which has led to years of legal pushback from several conservation groups.
The King Cove Corp. says that since the refuge was established in 1980, there have been dozens of deaths associated with the lack of land access, either due to plane crashes or an inability to reach timely medical treatment. And it says there have been more than 200 medical evacuations from King Cove in the last decade.
The Trump administration agreed to a land swap in 2019 that would allow construction of the road. But President Biden’s Interior secretary, Deb Haaland, said the department wouldn’t go through with it and moved to pull out of the agreement this March.
On June 15, the court of appeals sided with the Department of the Interior, and granted Interior’s motion to dismiss the case.
“We’re glad to see the Izembek court case wrap up after the Interior Department’s withdrawal of the challenged land exchange,” said Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, a non-profit environmental law firm.
But lawyers for King Cove argue that the land exchange is still valid. They say the land exchange agreement can only change if a future court rules favorably on the decision to withdraw, and that they couldn’t just dismiss the motion in court.
“We believe the land exchange is still legal and valid,” said Della Trumble, the chief executive of King Cove Corp. in a statement. “As Native people, we will continue to fight for our rights and demand tribal consultation, which the Department of Interior failed to honor before executing its March 14, 2023 decision to terminate the land exchange.”
Although the Department of the Interior pulled out of this particular land swap, it said it’s looking into alternatives.