Izembek Wilderness Threatened by Road

The Izembek Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is one of the gems of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. The refuge is a critical feeding ground for waterfowl to store up energy before traveling from Alaska to and from points south.  In spring and fall, nearly all of the world’s population of Emperor and Brant geese stops to feast on the refuge’s eelgrass beds for sustenance.

The 315,000-acre refuge is a designated world heritage site, and most of the refuge is also designated as “wilderness” under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The refuge is now threatened by a road that would bisect the wilderness, forever compromising its wild character.

Recently Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke signed a land exchange agreement that would swap Tribal Corporation land on the edge of the refuge for property within the refuge permitting road construction. Since the route would no longer be federal land, it would not fall under the Wilderness Act prohibition against roads. A number of conservation groups including Wilderness Watch and eight other organizations are legally challenging the decision.

The sham road is a threat to all designated wilderness since if a road can be justified here, there are few places that would be safe from future road building. Furthermore, there are other viable alternatives that the village and road advocates summarily dismiss.

The road controversy began when fishing village of King Cove, which lies on the edge of the refuge, sought an exception to the Wilderness Act to construct a road between their community and nearby Cold Bay where a large modern airport is located. Initially, the justification for the road was commercial. King Cove has a major fish processing plant, and the commercial interests wanted access to air transportation to move employees in and out as well as frozen fish quickly to markets.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations rejected the road request due to the damage that a road would do to the refuge, as well as its wilderness.

Over time, the justification for the road was altered to one about public safety. King Cove argued that it required a road to move sick or injured people to the regional Cold Bay airport quickly. Keep in mind that King Cove has an airport itself.

To ameliorate the public safety concerns, the federal government spent more than $50 million constructing new medical facilities in King Cove, as well as a hovercraft operation to cross the fiord and evacuate medical emergencies quickly in 20 minutes to Cold Bay.

But providing a viable alternative to deal with medical emergencies has never been the real reason for a road. The commercial fish processing plant, as well as residents hoping to get easier access to the Cold Bay airport for more mundane travel like high school sports events, shopping trips, and transportation of fish plant employees (many are from the Philippines), are using medical emergencies as a Trojan Horse to disarm critics.

Make no mistake about it, the Izembek road proposal is designed to put a knife into our Wilderness Act and make it easier to carve up and dismantle the wildlands that belong to all Americans. It must be stopped.



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  1. John R. Avatar
    John R.

    Why connect a town of about 100 year round residents to a another town with about 1000 year round residents with a 12 mile road? At that rate, every village and hamlet in outback Alaska deserves a road to it. Trojan horse? You bet. Roads must not cut through protected wildlife preserves. Let’s keep some places pristine, wild and natural.

  2. Joe Meehan Avatar

    Mr. Wuerthner – to correct one item, the eelgrass beds of Izembek Lagoon, which are very important habitat for Brant, Emperor geese and a host of other birds and marine wildlife, are NOT part of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The federal refuge includes only the surrounding uplands. The lagoon and adjoining marine waters are part of the Izembek State Game Refuge. The state and federal refuges are managed in a partnership but the lines of jurisdiction are very clear.

  3. Henry Mack Avatar
    Henry Mack

    George Wuerthner has not told the whole story; The refuge has 40 + miles of roads that spits the refuge from south to the north for the past 65 years witch has been used each year by hundreds to thousands of hunters from all around the world, killing ducks and birds by the thousands for 3 to 4 months each year. Also the lie that continues to come out by the enviro groups about a road being built for the transport of seafoods is their trojan horse,

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner