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Trump Officials’ Land Swap for Alaska Road Unlawful: Court (2)

June 2, 2020, 3:58 PMUpdated: June 2, 2020, 8:15 PM

The Trump administration violated the law when it approved a land swap to build a controversial road through a wildlife refuge, a federal court in Alaska ruled Monday.

The Interior Department’s plan violated the Administrative Procedure Act “because the Secretary failed to provide adequate reasoning to support the change in policy in favor of a land exchange and a road through Izembek,” the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska said.

The 12-mile road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect remote King Cove, Alaska, to the nearby town of Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport.

The proposal has attracted national attention for years. The Alaska Native King Cove Corporation and its supporters, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), say the project is essential for protecting public health and safety by giving King Cove residents an easier option for medical evacuations to Anchorage.

Conservation groups say it threatens to rip apart unique habitats and harm endangered species along the way. They celebrated Monday’s decision as a win for brown bears, Emperor geese, and other animals.

“The court has seen through the Trump administration’s illegal attempt to trade away the globally-renowned wildlife habitat and congressionally-designated wilderness lands of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.

Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said Secretary David Bernhardt stands by the decision.

“The Secretary firmly believes that the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home is paramount, and the Department stands behind its decision,” he said in an email.

King Cove Corporation spokeswoman Della Trumble called the decision disappointing but said “the Aleuts of King Cove will continue our fight for a land exchange to protect the needs of our people.”

Long History

Interior rejected the road proposal under the Obama administration, reasoning that it would be too environmentally damaging to the refuge. The Trump administration reversed course, pushing two failed attempts at a land-swap deal for the road.

Senior Judge John W. Sedwick concluded in the latest decision that Interior fell short of its legal requirement to provide a “reasoned explanation” for changing course on Izembek, after concluding in 2013 that a road would “lead to significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources.”

“The Secretary offers no new information or data to justify his contrary finding that the value of the added acreage to the refuge system counters the negative effects of a road through Izembek,” Sedwick wrote.

He further found that the agreement violated the purpose of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which aims to preserve natural landscapes while protecting subsistence uses. Sedwick declined to address additional claims under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Sierra Club is part of the coalition challenging the land swap. The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

The case is Friends of Alaska Nat’l Wildlife Refuges v. Bernhardt, D. Alaska, No. 3:19-cv-00216, 6/1/20.

(Adds comment from King Cove Corporation in ninth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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