Date: Tuesday, March 14, 2023
WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland today withdrew a land exchange between the Interior Department and King Cove Corporation authorized by Secretary Bernhardt in July 2019. The Department 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. This action applies to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that was created by President Carter’s landmark Alaska National Interest Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, which conserved more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska. As part of President Biden’s commitment to upholding America’s conservation laws, the 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.
In rescinding the land exchange, Secretary 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. 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.”
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, Secretary Jewell 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, 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.