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A Land Deal Threatens Alaska’s National Conservation Lands

The interior secretary must reject a land exchange to build a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness.

Bear Glacier is seen in the Kenai Fjords National Park on September 1, 2015 in Seward, Alaska.

Twenty-five years after he signed the bipartisan Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) into law, President Jimmy Carter’s iconic smile was in full display, as he and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter, leaning against the railings of a small marine vessel, looked through their binoculars at the natural wonders of Kenai Fjords National Park. As if on cue, iconic animals appeared, including playful sea otters, breaching humpback whales, barking sea lions, colorful puffins, majestic bald eagles and sure-footed mountain goats.

Once again, President Carter had come to Alaska as “a hero and visionary,” and I was honored to have hosted these special ANILCA celebrations.

It is harder to smile now, however. The clear, bipartisan congressional intent of ANILCA is seriously at risk.

Unprecedented in scope and significance, ANILCA protects over 100 million acres of national public land for conservation and subsistence purposes, including the stunningly beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park. ANILCA’s provisions govern approximately 60 percent of all National Park lands, over 90 percent of all National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness lands, and our country’s largest National Forest, the Tongass.

For more than 40 years after signing it into law, President Carter has vigilantly defended ANILCA, including taking exceptional actions during the last 10 months in an effort to save the single largest land conservation legislation in the history of the nation.

Given the climate change and biodiversity crises we are facing, as well as the need for greater environmental justice, these extensive, safeguarded federal public lands and their ecosystem services have never been more important.

ANILCA, however, is endangered by the potential continued executive branch misinterpretation and misuse of the statute’s exchange provision. This significant problem started during the previous administration.

Without any public process or compliance with other laws whatsoever, Donald Trump’s secretary of interior entered into a land exchange for the purposes of building a commercial road through one of the most biologically significant areas in the nation: Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The land exchange attempted to give to the King Cove Corporation (KCC) the surface and subsurface estate of critically important national properties within the heart of the Wildlife Refuge in return for unspecified lands owned by KCC.

The Izembek Refuge is also vitally important for Alaska Native subsistence, food security and cultural heritage. Prominent Yupik leader and elder Myron Naneng attests that, “The Pacific black brant and emperor geese that rest and feed at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge during their spring and fall migrations are an important food source for villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the proposed road would harm the refuge and destroy habitat that is vital for these and other species that feed Alaska Native families.”

A distinguished federal district court judge declared the exchange to be illegal The court ruled that the failure to comply with Congress’s clearly expressed intent in ANILCA “is incorrect and not entitled to deference.” The case is on appeal.

Recently, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland rescinded the Trump land exchange, but — and this is a very big but — she explicitly left open the option of engaging in a new land exchange.

The precedent-setting consequences of doing a new land exchange at Izembek extend far beyond one very significant National Wildlife Refuge area. A revised Izembek land exchange would continue to represent a radical and injurious rewriting of ANILCA by the executive branch, and amount to an unbridled assertion of power by the secretary of interior.

As President Carter has pointed out, using an exchange to build a road through protected wilderness “is not only deeply mistaken, it is also dangerous.” It thwarts Congress’s clearly expressed intent and ANILCA’s carefully defined process provisions and substantive provisions. The Native Village of Hooper Bay Tribal Council also opposes using an exchange agreement to achieve a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

What would this precedent allow in the future? The secretary of agriculture could, through land exchanges, provide corporations with thousands of acres of prime, financially valuable old-growth trees in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, together with road corridors to reach those areas. The recently reinstated Roadless Rule would, for all practical purposes, be undone. That rule restored roadless protections to over 9.3 million acres of roadless areas. But if the secretary could, at his or her discretion, complete Izembek-like land exchanges throughout the Tongass, the Roadless Rule would be eviscerated.

Corporations and the state of Alaska could similarly ask for acreage in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to develop a mine, or land in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge to develop a significant amount of oil and gas and unleash a new carbon bomb, or road corridors through any congressionally designated wilderness areas.

Is this far-fetched? The answer to this question is most decidedly “no.” Based on past efforts by the state and corporations, it is entirely predictable.

With the passage of ANILCA, President Carter and a bipartisan Congress gave our nation a precious conservation and environmental justice gift. An Izembek land exchange would take a sledgehammer to that gift.

In response to King Cove Corporation’s request for access to the air strip in Cold Bay, Secretary Haaland must not enter a new land exchange, and, instead either pursue excellent non-road options, or use Title XI of ANILCA, which is specifically the “single comprehensive statutory authority for the approval or disapproval” of roads through protected national public lands in Alaska.

For current and future generations, for the nation’s conservation goals, for Alaska Native subsistence and cultural heritage, for robust sustainable economic sectors and for President Carter’s and President Biden’s legacies, it is time for Secretary Haaland to reject — once and for all — using an illegal land exchange methodology to build a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness.