By now you may have heard that the Biden administration withdrew its agreement with local governments that would have allowed a road to be built bisecting the Izembek Wilderness in Alaska.
Thank you to the thousands of you who responded to our recent appeal and wrote to Interior Secretary Haaland and President Biden insisting they withdraw the illegal land exchange agreement. Your voices were heard and Izembek has a reprieve!
But we can’t breathe easily yet. First, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has to agree to dismiss the administration’s appeal of the lower court decision that agreed with us that the land exchange was illegal. The Biden administration has asked the Ninth Circuit to dismiss its appeal, but the Intervenors—including a local native corporation and the State of Alaska—have asked the Court to keep the case alive. “Dismissal” is routine in such cases, but anything is possible.
The greater long-term threat, however, appears to be coming from the Secretary herself. Numerous news reports and the Secretary’s memo withdrawing the exchange all speak to Secretary Haaland’s desire to craft a new land exchange agreement, one that potentially acquires more land for the Refuge and includes more public involvement, but still results in building a road through the Izembek Wilderness. It will be as unlawful and damaging as the Trump administration-approved road, and set a terrible precedent for all Wilderness in Alaska.
Under ANILCA, the law that established the Izembek Wilderness and most of the 100 million acres of conservation units in Alaska, the Secretary’s authority to engage in land exchanges is limited to trades that further the conservation and subsistence values of the areas. If an applicant wants to build a road through a Wilderness, a different process—described in Title XI of ANILCA—is required, one that requires approval by the Secretary, the President, and Congress. In the case of Izembek, the Trump administration tried to evade this Title XI requirement by first trading away the land where the road would be built, then claiming Title XI doesn’t apply because the land is no longer in Wilderness. Should that twisted logic prevail, any Wilderness in Alaska could have a road built through it simply by the Secretary trading away the land where the road is proposed to go. Such a charade undermines ANILCA and the Wilderness Act, but unfortunately, Secretary Haaland has suggested she is open to pursuing the same process on a future Izembek road proposal.
Not to be upstaged, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski has been quoted as saying she’ll try again to force the land exchange through with legislation. She tried in 2009, then made a deal with Democrats that required the Secretary of Interior to do an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the impacts of such a road, as well as non-road alternatives that would improve emergency access between the community of King Cove and the airstrip at Cold Bay. That EIS showed there are safer and less environmentally destructive alternatives to the road, but Murkowski is clearly willing to renege on the 2019 deal.
So stay tuned! The Izembek road issue is not going away, nor are Wilderness Watch and our allies who have been fighting this road for decades.