The Aleutian Range stretches out towards the Aleutian Islands and is home to a number of large wildlife refuges, including Izembek Refuge. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Biden Administration, with the apparent support of Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, has sided with Alaskan Natives and the previous Trump administration to approve the construction of a road through the designated wilderness of Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The Department of Justice filed a brief with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opposing a legal petition from environmental groups who say that the land swap that would allow the road construction to move forward is illegal. The swap was approved by Trump’s Secretary of Interior, David Bernhardt.

The decision, if upheld, poses a serious threat to all the lands protected by the historic 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that, among other things, created and designed to preserve public lands as new national parks and wildlife refuges in the state. Many of these newly protected lands, like Izembek, have an overlay of wilderness, which among other things, prohibits roads and motorized access.

Other Alaskan native groups support the land exchange, likely because they believe they could use the precedent to further their own economic interests.

Local governments support it, including the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, as does the King Cove village corporation. The National Congress of American Indians, statewide Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska’s Congressional delegation and the state of Alaska are in favor of the road.

For instance, NANA Corporation, which represents native people in Northwest Alaska, and is currently trying to obtain permission to build a 211-mile road across the southern Brooks Range, including through the Gates of the Arctic National Park, to its mining claims in the Ambler Mining District. NANA filed a brief prepared by Lewis and Clark Law School’s Western Resource Law Center to support the land exchange.

In their brief, NANA Corporation says: “The “economic and social needs” to be furthered by ANILCA, including by ANILCA land exchanges, are broad in scope.34 This purpose is consistent with what this Court recognized as the most significant purpose of the ANILCSA land grants: ANCSA’s legislative history makes clear that Congress contemplated that land granted under ANCSA would be put primarily to three uses –village expansion, subsistence, and capital for economic development. Of these potential uses, Congress clearly expected economic development would be the most significant. . .”

“[W]e have no doubt that Congress intended, at least, that those Native corporations that did select land for its economic potential would be to able to develop that land and to realize that potential.35”

Of course, this distorts the main theme of ANILCA, which makes preservation the primary purpose of the legislation.

King Cove is an Aleut Village.

Some environmentalists suggest that giving the Secretary of Interior discretion to trade public lands away could lead to the privatization of millions of acres of Alaskan conservation lands and national parks.

The Aleut people living in the village of King Cove claim they need the road for medical emergencies so that injured people can readily access an all-weather runway in nearby Cold Bay, a former military base.

Currently, access to Cold Bay’s runway is by boat or from a smaller airstrip in King Cove. But in stormy weather, travel by any means, including by road, is often dangerous and difficult. This situation is by no means unique to King Cove. Many Alaskan villages are far from hospitals and infrastructure that many Americans take for granted.

However, many wilderness advocates believe the real reason for the road is to carry fish captured by the commercial fishing fleet in King Cove to planes in Cold Bay for rapid shipment to markets.

Izembek Refuge is of international significance. Izembek is recognized as a Wetland of International Importance, and Izembek lagoons are also considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) of global significance. The eel grass beds found in the 315,000-acre refuge provide a major “fuel” stop for migratory waterfowl. Some 98% of the world’s black brant utilize the Izembek lagoons during the year. The refuge is also home to brown bear, wolves, caribou and moose.

LOCAL POLITICS

King Cove. Photo by Aleut Corporation. 

The majority of King Cove’s residences are Aleut. In the last election, two-thirds of King Cove voters chose Donald Trump over Joe Biden.

The local politicians have tried to frame opposition to the road as a humanitarian and racial issue. Writing in the Anchorage Times, Henry Mack, the major of King Cove, Stanley Mack, the mayor of Aleutian East Borough, and Della Trumble, a member of the King Cove Corporation and Agdaagux Tribal Council, suggests in an editorial Anchorage Times, opponents put wildlife ahead of humans.

As they wrote in a commentary about opposition to the road by former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Clark, “It’s easy for highly paid former federal officials like Bruce Babbitt and Jamie Clark to pretend that the lives of nearly 1,000 indigenous Aleuts in King Cove, Alaska don’t really matter.”

In a review of the environmental impacts of the proposed road, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the road would “degrade irreplaceable ecological resources.” The agency concluded that “ “The Service has determined that increased acreage would not compensate for the overall values of the existing Izembek Refuge lands and Wilderness that would be removed. Nor would the offered lands compensate for the anticipated impacts that the proposed road would have on wildlife and the habitat surrounding the road corridor.”

In 2013 Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell decided to preclude road construction, protecting the wildlife and wilderness values of the area.

Jewell found that” Increased human traffic and noise, changed hydrology of the wetlands, pollution runoff, and introduced contaminants and invasive species would despoil the isthmus.”  She further concluded there were other modes of transportation available to address emergency medical transportation and pledged to work to implement them.

However, the Trump administration, under the Secretary of Interior Bernhardt, approved a land exchange between the Aleut natives of King Cove and the Department of Interior that would permit the road construction to proceed.

In May of this year, former President Jimmy Carter filed an Amicus Curaie brief in support of continued  wilderness designation and refuge protection. Carter, who in 1980 signed the ANILCA into law, argues that allowing a road to be constructed across the Izembek NWR Wilderness could “undercut” the purposes of the Act and set a dangerous precedent that could threaten Wilderness and conservation lands across the country.

Carter characterized the Court’s decision as “not only deeply mistaken; it is also dangerous.”

Carter, who helped to negotiate the terms of ANILCA, says the Secretary of Interior has no authority to exchange lands to facilitate private development. He claims the Act (ANILCA) only permits land trades when it furthers the purposes of the Act.

Clearly, harming wildlife and wilderness values does not further the original conservation purposes of ANILCA.

HUMANITARIAN OR ECONOMIC MOTIVES

Some opponents of the road allege the proposed road has more to do with economic opportunities than medical emergencies. The original justification for the road was more pecuniary. In 1994, King Cove passed a resolution saying the road would “link together two communities having one of the State’s premier fishing ports/harbors (including North America’s largest salmon cannery) in King Cove with one of the State’s premier airports at Cold Bay.”

The Peter Pan Processing plant in King Cove is Alaska’s biggest salmon and seafood processing operation. The route would make getting workers in and out of King Cove easier.  But it would also reduce costs for shipping fish. Currently, Peter Pan must load fish on a boat, and transport it by sea to Cold Bay, where it is loaded on another truck to be transported to the airstrip.

But twenty years later, the justification was changed to the medical emergency rationale.

The agreement between the federal government and local community explicitly says: “The road shall be used primarily for health, safety, and quality of life purposes (including access to and from the Cod Bay Airport) and generally for non-commercial purposes. The commercial transport of fish and seafood products, except by an individual or small business on any road portion shall be prohibited.”

The term “generally” and “small business” opens a big loophole. Not surprisingly, the local Aleut leaders of King Cove all support road construction. Since they own fishing boats, including in 2019, the mayor of King Cove and five out of six city council members, all considered small business owners, would not be prohibited from using the road to transport fish.

It is important to note that the US Small Business Administration defines a firm engaged in “seafood product preparation and packaging” to be a small business if it has no more than 750 employees. Though Peter Pan is owned by a Fortune 500 Maruha Nichiro Corporation in Japan. The Peter Pan currently operates with 500 employees. So all Maruha would have to do is spin off as a separate company, and it would qualify as a “small business.”

It’s hard to believe that Secretary Haaland and the Biden Administration Justice Department don’t appreciate the significance of this proposal and the precedent that it may create that could harm all of Alaska’s national interest lands.

The decision by the 3 judge panel of the 9th Circuit, which would allow the exchange to go forward, is being challenged by the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs want the full 9th Circuit court to take another look at the case. Dept of Interior(and NANA and State of AK) want the ruling to stand as is. It’s not clear the full 9th Circuit will take the case on.

Haaland recently visited King Cove where Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association conducted an ancestral naming ceremony in which Haaland was named Agdaagum Ax^aasniikangin, or “Mother Bear.”

It would be truly ironic if this decision is allowed to stand that Secretary Haaland’s legacy may be the subverting the greatest conservation Act in the nation’s history.

 
About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

17 Responses to Izembek Refuge Wilderness People or Nature?

  1. lou says:

    Another case of native Americans wanting different rules for them than for anyone else. If they can vote in national elections, they are citizens and must abide by the same laws. No exceptions. ANILCA gave the native corporations very large chunks of land already. They should not be allowed to grab whatever they want in addition. I am tired of the double standard.

    And the secretary of the interior should not be putting native affairs above those of the rest of us. I suspected this would happen when they put an unqualified person in this position. How is this appointment any different from those made by Trump of unqualified people with special interest advancement goals?

    • Ida Lupine says:

      It isn’t.

      I should add the Tongass old-growth forest to my list of places to be concerned about.

      Republicans have long been blamed as the anti-environment/business first party, and rightly so many times, but to have Democrats also become anti-environment, and even agreeing with Trump’s decisions while decrying him outwardly, is really dismaying.

      Who does one vote for now?

      • Jeff says:

        There is no one worth voting for in this corrupt and unrepresentative system. Americans have been totally brainwashed to think that being restricted to only 2 political parties is normal and OK. Nothing could be further from the truth. The U.S. and U.K. are the only democracies on Earth that don’t have proportional representation, which gives representation in a legislature based on the percentage of votes that a party gets. Democrats are just as bad as Republicans overall, and there are no differences between them on some major issues, this one being a perfect example (war being another one).

        You’re much better off spending your time, money, and effort trying to reform our corrupt and unrepresentative electoral system (replace the winner-take-all BS with proportional representation, replace all private campaign contributions with public ones and equal money for all candidates, provide equal TV time for all candidates, etc.) than working for candidates who you think are not quite as bad.

        • Mark L says:

          And how would we reform that system? What steps? Until then, AT LEAST vote for the lesser of two evils…..always. Sure, keep trying to end the corruption, but understand that reform, like plate techtonics takes eons, and humans only see ‘their generation’ unless someone has blessed them with vision (not many have). Hedging bets and helping the undertow of discernment takes time (see slavery). It didn’t happen overnight, it took generations of people having personal realizations about themselves. The Greeks and the Romans both had the same hollowed out beliefs that will eventually get us. Who is gonna pick up the pieces? If we keep thinking in terms of party, all is lost.

          • Jeff says:

            Two huge problems with voting for a supposed lesser evil: 1) The supposedly lesser evil is usually not so. For example, Biden has been WORSE THAN TRUMP in many major ways, such as making war for the empire and actually harming Black people. Biden’s crime bill did far more harm to Black people than everything Trump has done in his entire life, to list just one example; and 2) voting for lesser evils just perpetuates evil. You shouldn’t vote against candidates, only for them. If a candidate doesn’t generally stand for what you do, you’re harming your own cause by voting for them. This lesser-of-evils voting has pushed the Republicans so far right that they’ve become virtual Nazis, and has pushed the Democrats so far right that they’ve become Republicans. This is a losing strategy that has been proven to be so.

            • Mark L says:

              Republican are pushed to the right because of primaries, it’s well known. Primaries pull candidates towards the fringes, only to bad them recant (and whitewash) their extremism and present a more centrist position for general elections. It’s why no o e wants to debate any more, why expose yourself when money/advertising can get you elected. Yes, we allowed this to happen…..we have to stop it to get anything done. So voting for the lesser of evils means getting lesser of evils into judicial branch as well, which is generational (see reference above). Every time you vote, you’re voting AGAINST everyone except the one you vote for, you can’t avoid that. It you’re presented with a system where voting is your only right, then you have to vote lesser of evils, there’s no other option. If you want to change the system, change it through primaries, and who is selected as candidates, not just complain that it’s corrupt…..be smarter than that.

              • Jeff says:

                As to why U.S. politicians of both parties have moved so far to the right: This is too much for here, but I’ll nutshell it the best I can. While it’s true that primaries bring out the more extreme positions of the parties, that doesn’t explain why Democrats have moved to the right. Furthermore, if we had proportional representation and public (instead of private) campaign financing with equal TV time for all candidates, there would be a lot of parties that had good chances to get into office. If a party were too extreme, they would get few if any candidates elected. So, the real problem is the electoral system, and which of two neoliberal pro-corporate war-mongers gets elected makes little or no difference. Finally, as I said, a lot of these people aren’t even lesser evil. People have been conditioned to think that Democrats are lesser evil, but that’s not generally true any longer, if it ever was. At least Republicans tell you what they want to do; Democrats pretend to be progressive, so in that way they’re even worse.

                As to voting for or against candidates: Perhaps I wasn’t clear, I’ll try again. When you decide for whom to vote, if you do so based mainly on voting against one candidate because you don’t like either of them, that’s voting against someone and shouldn’t be done. You should only vote for people with whom you generally agree, that’s voting FOR someone. Of course there are exceptions, like everything else in life, but if you’ve been fooled into thinking that Republicans are so much worse than Democrats, you’ll believe the propaganda that every presidential election is an existential event and that the Republican candidate is the worst one ever and must be stopped. (Reagan was the worst president in my lifetime, and he was elected president the first time over 40 years ago.) As I pointed out in a previous post, this is simply a Democratic Party lie to get you to vote for them out of fear. Relevant here, Joe Biden and the Democrats are exposing more public land to industrial harms like drilling and fracking, to again just list one example. How is that worse than Republicans?

                If you’re a liberal and you think that things are basically OK and just want some reforms, then your position makes sense. But if you’re progressive (actual progressive, not Democrat) or radical, you realize that the entire electoral system needs major changes in order to both become actually representative and to provide candidates worth our support and votes. Very few people are as radical as I am, including on environmental issues, so I get that we would disagree on issues like this. But George Wuerthner is an old Earth First!er and I expect to be having discussions with Earth First! types here, not liberals.

                • Mark L says:

                  “Relevant here, Joe Biden and the Democrats are exposing more public land to industrial harms like drilling and fracking, to again just list one example. How is that worse than Republicans?”
                  Really Jeff? You think Republicans would drill and frack less? LOL. Come on man, get real. Were you HERE for the last six years? It’s not apples and oranges, it’s exponential in comparison. Republicans want extractive rights to everything.
                  You can vote all you want for a third party candidate that may or may not support Earth First! values, but getting them elected is next to impossible. Why? People see it as a threat because they (E1st!) are too far left, which is too close to anarchists and reactionaries (I know! I know! It’s NOT THE SAME, ITS POLAR OPPOSITES) but most don’t get that. They want a comfortable candidate that won’t over turn the system. Why? They THINK they are doing ok and going on a ‘path to prosperity’…..i.e. Manifest Destiny. Who will sell that dream through lies without batting an eyelash? That’s your opposition.
                  Repugnicans and Dumbocrats will both gladly lie to get a vote. If you look ahead 50 years which party will still be around?
                  Dems, and they’ll act like republicans do now, just like the Whig party did. Maybe democratic republicans should come back? It’s just bread and circuses to politicians. But as the Beatles said, “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”.
                  You’ve got to know your audience to win now, no exceptions. Use the primaries as a tool

  2. Chris Zinda says:

    The greatest conservation act in our history is (was?) the Endangered Species Act. It expressly uses that term.

    The greatest preserve Act in our history was supposed to be the Wilderness Act. It expressly uses that term.

    Yet, “Deep Green” George is reluctant to use the word preserve in relation to any public lands – including this piece.

    As such, is it any wonder no environmental group litigates to demand wilderness be preserved – including the Izembek? As there is no preservation sidebar, is it any wonder the remaining wild is steamrolled?

    • Chris Zinda says:

      I ask for Mr. Maughan as a Poli Sci academic to respond to the importance of semantic, words, to enabling legislation.

      Further, to George, as an ecologist, his thought on the importance (or lack thereof) between conservation and preservation on both habitats and their management.

      To both, the question of litigation to enforce or presure public lands management (in)action.

  3. Jannett Heckert says:

    We don’t need to develop every square foot of property in the United States. This is the last frontier and we need to save it for open space for the animals and humanity not for private use and profit.

  4. Ida Lupine says:

    Surprise? Not. You can’t get any more blatant than this, as far as allowing for ‘economic development’. I thought it was supposed to be for a hospital or emergency hospital access.

    Well, at least it’s out there now.

  5. Ida Lupine says:

    “It would be truly ironic if this decision is allowed to stand that Secretary Haaland’s legacy may be the subverting the greatest conservation Act in the nation’s history.”

    What else could it mean also, for drilling in ANWAR, copper mines in Bristol Bay, etc.

    • Jeff says:

      When humans decided to prioritize ego, intellect, and unnaturally & very harmfully manipulating the physical/natural world — instead of focusing on wisdom, empathy, and expanding our consciousness, the latter being the ONLY proper role of humans on this planet — they began going down the wrong path. This started with the use of agriculture 10-12,000 years ago, and the subject of this story is just another of the countless symptoms and side effects of that decision. Where humans focus their attitudes, feelings, thinking, efforts, and lives is what we need to reverse. This is a battle for hearts and minds, and if we don’t win that battle, human destruction of the natural environment will continue apace.

  6. Jeff says:

    The reasons for these roads are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that they will cause massive destruction, first by the roads themselves and the traffic on them, then by bringing in other harmful activities like mining and logging.

    Native support for these roads shows that it’s not Natives who we should support; it’s TRADITIONAL Natives, none of whom would ever support anything like this. All people are subject to the temptations of money and the material things it buys. The only difference between groups of people is their culture and society. Traditional societies respect and prioritize the natural world, while non-traditional Native societies just want to be like the colonizers; in this case they want to make a lot of money.

    Wildlife SHOULD be “put ahead” of humans! Humans are thriving and overpopulated, while wildlife is greatly underpopulated and quickly vanishing BECAUSE OF HUMANS. The Natives quoted in this story are no better than Dick Wilson and his GOON Squad, that harassed, beat, and killed traditional Natives, and who were no better than the colonizers, despite being Natives. To be clear, the groups that are the biggest problem on Earth are colonizers and rich people, and I advocate the dismantling of industrial society on the entire planet for the good of the Earth and all the life here. This could be accomplished in 150-200 years if people began making an effort to do so now and human population were lowered to one billion. But just because colonizers do bad things isn’t an excuse for “progressive” Natives also doing them.

    The leftist and environmentalist deference to Natives without considering whether those Natives are traditional has to end. Natives can be just as bad as anyone else, and in this case they’re Trump supporters and Republicans. People are all people, and people are harmful to the natural environment and the life there, with only rare exceptions (the tiny fraction of 1% of humans who have remained hunter-gatherers and acetic monks, I can’t think of anyone else). Natives who want to destroy the natural environment are just as bad as colonizers who do the same thing.

  7. Roger Lockwood says:

    And what is the population of King Cove? How much are we going to spend for each man, woman and child for the infrastructure? Just because your grand-parents fished and netted on a sand spit a hundred years ago doesn’t mean you have to live there full-time. Completely ridiculous we have to support this as working tax payers.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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