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Photo by Yang Lu (www.sharetheexperience.org).
Secretary Jewell Issues Decision on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Land Exchange and Road Proposal
Office of the Secretary
Decision Affirms Protections for Unique Ecosystem and Maintains Congressional Designation as Wilderness
Last edited 4/26/2016
WASHINGTON, DC – As directed by Congress in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today concluded a four-year analysis, and issued a decision supporting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred alternative to decline a proposed land exchange with the State of Alaska and prevent construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which was first established in the 1960s.
The nearly four-year analysis on the effects of the proposed land exchange, including the impact a road would have on Izembek's vital ecology and congressionally-designated wilderness helped to inform the Secretary's decision. In addition, a personal visit to the Refuge and the King Cove and Cold Bay communities as well as a report from the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs regarding the medical evacuation benefits of the proposed road were considered.
To complete the environmental impact assessment, the Service conducted a public process that included over 130 meetings with stakeholders, government-to-government consultations, and numerous trips to King Cove by Service and Department of the Interior officials.
“We've undertaken a robust and transparent public process to review the matter from all sides, and I have personally visited the Refuge and met with the King Cove and Cold Bay communities to gain a better understanding of their concerns,” said Jewell. “After careful consideration, I support the Service's conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it. Izembek is an extraordinary place – internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species – and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness. I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”
Given the serious concerns raised by King Cove residents, the Secretary today reiterated the Department's commitment to assist in identifying and evaluating options that would improve access to affordable transportation and health care for the citizens of this remote Alaska community. She noted that nothing in the decision precludes the State of Alaska, the Aleutians East Borough, or the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay from implementing another alternative for transportation improvements outside of the Refuge, including enhancements to the dock at Cold Bay.
“We will continue to work with the State of Alaska and local communities to support viable alternatives to ensure continued transportation and infrastructure improvements for the health and safety of King Cove residents,” added Jewell.
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960, serves as vital habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl – including 98 percent of the world's population of Pacific black brant – as well as grizzly bear, caribou and salmon. These species are important subsistence resources for Native Alaskans. A road would have permanently bisected the isthmus, where most of the Refuge's 315,000 acres of congressionally-designated wilderness are located.
By designating this area as wilderness in 1980, the most protective category of public lands, Congress recognized the need to protect Izembek as a place where natural processes prevail with few signs of human presence. At the core of the areas protected are internationally significant eelgrass beds in Izembek and Kinzarof lagoons, as well as adjacent wetlands and uplands of the narrow isthmus. In addition to the brant, other species that depend on these wetlands and eelgrass beds include emperor geese, Steller's eiders, and hundreds of thousands of other federally-protected waterfowl and shorebirds.
While the proposed land exchange would bring many more acres of land into the Refuge System, the analysis indicates that the increased acreage could not compensate for the unique values of existing refuge lands, nor the anticipated effects that the proposed road would have on wildlife, habitat, subsistence resources, and wilderness values of the Refuge.
The idea of a road has been discussed since at least the 1980s, with King Cove residents expressing interest in a road to improve access to Cold Bay and its airport for personal, medical and commercial purposes. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens spearheaded an effort in 1997 that led Congress to provide over $37.5 million in federal funding as an alternative to a road through the Izembek Refuge and Izembek Wilderness. The funding upgraded the medical clinic, improved the King Cove airstrip, and created a transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay via an unpaved road from King Cove to a hovercraft and terminal. During the time that it was in operation from 2007 to 2010, the hovercraft successfully completed every requested medical evacuation.
In November 2010, the Aleutians East Borough decided to suspend hovercraft services between King Cove and Cold Bay. The Borough has indicated that if a proposed road was not constructed, it would develop an alternative transportation link between King Cove and Cold Bay. Additionally, the Borough has stated that an aluminum landing craft/passenger ferry could be more technically and financially viable than a hovercraft.
The Service issued the final EIS for public review on February 6, 2013. On March 21, 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed that two actions be completed before any final decision: 1) the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs visit King Cove and hold additional government-to-government consultations to assess the medical evacuation benefits from the proposed road, and provide a report to the Secretary; and 2) the Secretary of the Interior hold an official meeting in King Cove.
A copy of the Record of Decision, final EIS and report of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to the Secretary are available here.