The Trump administration’s move this week to green light a highly controversial one-lane road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge signals a dramatic shift in approach from the Obama era, with the White House no longer bowing to pressure to conservationists, environmentalists, and liberal Democrats.
Republicans say the Interior Department’s land-swap agreement with Alaska, which is a key step toward construction of a long-awaited road to the small, isolated community of King Cove, shows that the Trump administration is prioritizing the needs of the Alaskan people over the possible disruption of sensitive lands. Such a change in policy, officials say, is long overdue, though pressure from green groups is sure to intensify as the King Cove road moves toward completion.
“Above all, the federal government’s job is to keep our people safe and respect our treaty commitments with Native Americans and Alaska natives. Today, I am proudly fulfilling both of those missions,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday after announcing the plan. “Previous administrations prioritized birds over human lives, and that’s just wrong. The people of King Cove have been stewarding the land and wildlife for thousands of years and I am confident that working together we will be able to continue responsible stewardship while also saving precious lives.”
Indeed, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected pleas from King Cove residents to build the road, saying the construction would be too harmful to migratory birds that live in the refuge. That 2013 decision was one example of the Obama administration routinely siding with environmental groups and other progressive allies on a host of issues around energy development and conservation.
Unlike other instances, such as Democrats’ resistance to oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the case of King Cove could be considered a matter of life and death. The 989-person town doesn’t have its own hospital, and without road access, residents routinely must fly 600 miles to Anchorage for medical emergencies.
King Cove has no reliable airport of its own. Residents instead must be flown via Medevac to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay, but helicopter liftoffs are often impossible due to harsh weather conditions.
The one-lane road, which would stretch roughly 12 miles from King Cove to Cold Bay, will make it far easier to get medical care quickly.
Mr. Zinke said the Interior Department now will negotiate with tribal leaders over a land swap. Whatever land in the Izembek is used for the road, it’s expected that many times more acreage will be set aside as new protected wilderness.
While there’s sure to be at least some level of environmental impact from the road, Alaskan leaders say it’s by far the best solution.
“Common sense and compassion have finally prevailed,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican. “For decades, the people of King Cove have asked for what virtually every other American already takes for granted — a reliable way to protect their health and safety and improve their quality of life.”
But environmental groups, despite no longer having allies in the White House and the Interior Department, still say they’ll file lawsuits and do whatever else they can to prevent construction.
“This is the latest and among the most egregious examples of the administration selling out irreplaceable public wildlands for commercial gain. Izembek National Wildlife Refuge protects some of the world’s most unique, fragile and essential wildlife habitat, but this administration thinks nothing of bulldozing a road through the middle of it, scarring the refuge forever,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. “Izembek Refuge belongs to all Americans, and we will fight this illegal backroom deal that would irreparably damage this vital wilderness preserve in court.”
Other groups contend the administration is courting disaster by discounting the effects of a road on wildlife, particularly birds.
“It’s hard to overstate how important Izembek is to migrating waterfowl,” said Nils Warnock executive director of Audubon Alaska. “The Izembek [refuge] is not your typical piece of Alaska. At times it supports the majority of the world’s populations of Emperor Geese, Pacific Black Brant, and the federally listed population of Steller’s Eiders. There’s a reason the Interior Department decided against authorizing this road back in 2013. Izembek is too critical to wildlife to risk by having a road blasted through it.”