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U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) on Tuesday withdrew a land exchange in Alaska between the Interior Department and King Cove Corporation that was signed by Trump administration’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in July 2019. 

The land exchange would have allowed a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that lies between the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. President Jimmy Carter designated 307,082 acres of the refuge as wilderness in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

In a statement released on Tuesday the Interior Department said it “determined that the 2019 land exchange contained several procedural flaws and was not consistent with Departmental policy. It was entered into without public participation and did not analyze potential effects on subsistence uses and habitat.”

Tuesday's announcement kills plans for a road to King Cove, Alaska, where almost 1,000 residents live, without access by a road. Currently, residents must travel by air or boat to get to more populated areas of Alaska.

In rescinding the land exchange, Haaland issued the following statement: “The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities. I reject that binary choice. I am a lifelong conservationist, and I believe deeply in the need to protect our lands and waters and honor our obligations to Tribal Nations. Respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening – really listening – to Tribal communities.” 

Haaland left open the possibility of a road in the future. She said the Interior Department  intends to initiate an environmental analysis that will include robust nation-to-nation consultation and consider, among other things, the 2013 land exchange considered by Secretary Sally Jewell and a subsistence evaluation under Section 810 of ANILCA.

“I have instructed my team to immediately launch a process to review previous proposals for a land exchange, rooted in a commitment to engagement in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation with Tribes, to protecting the national wildlife refuge system, and to upholding the integrity of ANILCA’s subsistence and conservation purposes,” Haaland said.

Della Trumble, chief executive of King Cove Corp. said Haaland had “emotion in her voice” when she told King Cove community leaders during a call Tuesday that she “supports the land exchange and a road.”

The debate of a land exchange dates back to 2009 when the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 directed the Secretary of the Interior to analyze a land exchange through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the Izembek Wilderness.

The proposal would have transferred approximately 200 acres within the refuge to the State of Alaska for a single-lane gravel road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay, Alaska.

As provided by the law, the road would be located approximately 1/2 mile to 1 mile north of Kinzarof Lagoon and “shall be used primarily for health and safety purposes and only for noncommercial purposes.”

In exchange, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would receive approximately 43,000 acres of land owned by the State of Alaska (to be designated wilderness), as well as approximately 13,300 acres of land owned by King Cove Corporation. In addition, the King Cove Corporation would relinquish 5,430 acres of selected lands within the Izembek Refuge and Izembek Wilderness boundary. 

In December 2013, Sally Jewell, the Interior secretary during the Obama administration, issued a Record of Decision declining the land exchange.

On July 3, 2019, Secretary Bernhardt signed a memorandum approving a different land exchange between the Interior Department and King Cove Corporation. The 2019 exchange did not prohibit commercial use of the road, authorized gravel mining within the Refuge, and had far less land coming to the Refuge in the exchange. 

A federal district court in Alaska vacated the 2019 exchange due to several legal flaws, including that Secretary Bernhardt failed to properly justify his change in policy and rejection of Secretary Jewell’s prior conclusions. In addition, former President Carter filed a brief in the 9th Circuit case arguing that Secretary Bernhardt’s action was inconsistent with the ANICLA. The Ninth Circuit is currently reviewing the district court decision.

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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].