WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Tuesday that it was withdrawing a land swap deal that would have helped to clear the way for construction of a road through a wildlife refuge in Alaska. The move is a reversal of the government’s position and one that could put an end to a project that would cut through the vast wild area, originally protected under President Jimmy Carter.
The land swap to create a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge was approved under the Trump administration to link King Cove with an airport in nearby Cold Bay. Deb Haaland, the secretary of the Interior Department, said the agency would reconsider an older land swap developed in 2013 that would allow for a road with more restricted use but would still enable Native and other community members in the remote area to access emergency medical care.
While the decision leaves the door open to building a road, the move is a significant victory for environmental groups at a time when activists are fuming over the Biden administration’s approval of the Willow project a vast oil drilling plan in Alaska’s North Slope.
“The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to lifesaving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities,” Ms. Haaland said in a statement. “I reject that binary choice.”
Residents of King Cove, an isolated community near the Aleutian Islands, and state political leaders had long sought to build the 40-mile road, which would be mostly gravel and would connect King Cove with an all-weather airport in another community. But 11 miles of the road would run through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, 300,000 acres that include extensive wetlands that are a prime stopover territory for geese and other migrating birds.
The Biden administration, which up until now had defended the Trump-era land swap in court, also intends to withdraw its support from pending litigation, an Interior spokeswoman said
The issue was dear to Mr. Carter, who enacted the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act in 1980. It protected more than 100 million acres of land in the state, including nearly 60 million designated as wilderness. In one of his last public acts, Mr. Carter filed a brief supporting conservation groups in the legal battle.
On Tuesday, the Carter Center issued a statement saying the president’s family was “grateful” for the Interior Department’s decision. It described the 2019 land swap agreement as one that “put this ecologically rich area at risk” and threatened to undermine Mr. Carter’s signature conservation law.
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Mr. Carter, 98, entered hospice care last month, the Carter Center said. President Carter asked President Biden to deliver a eulogy upon his death, Mr. Biden said on Monday at a fund-raiser.
Brook Brisson, a senior staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, said it remained unclear what the decision would ultimately mean for the litigation around the land swap. But she called the decision “very important” for protecting Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
“Based on the Department of Interior’s own analysis, there would be substantial impacts to the refuge and the wildlife that rely on it,” Ms. Brisson said. The area provides key habitat to bear, caribou, important waterfowl and other habitat that migrate through the area.
King Cove residents and others say the road is needed so that villagers can get adequate urgent medical care in Anchorage, 600 miles to the east. Opponents say the project is more about transporting fish from King Cove’s major business, a salmon processor.
Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, assailed the decision as “driven by radical Lower 48 environmental interests, not by Alaskans or the Alaska Native people who’ve lived in our state for thousands of years.”
In 2019, David Bernhardt, then the Interior Secretary in the Trump administration, approved an agreement that would have exchanged land owned by a local Native village corporation, to be used for the road corridor, for a parcel of state land that would have been joined to the refuge.
A Federal District Court rejected the deal in 2020. That decision was later reversed by a three-judge panel, with the majority finding that Mr. Bernhardt had acted appropriately in approving the land swap after weighing the economic and social benefits of the road to King Cove residents against any environmental harm it might cause. That decision was vacated in November, but a court subsequently reopened the case and set a new hearing.
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