The Washington Post
Interior revokes Trump-era deal for road in Alaska refuge
The Biden administration said Tuesday that it is withdrawing a land-swap deal that would have allowed a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wild area in Alaska originally protected under President Jimmy Carter.
The move helps preserve the sweeping environmental legacy of Carter, who entered home hospice care last month at 98 and has made the issue a top priority in his final days. But it stops short of the complete rejection of a road sought by some environmentalists and Carter himself. And it comes one day after climate activists criticized President Biden for approving a massive oil-drilling project in Alaska, saying the approval of Conocophillips’s Willow project would undermine the president’s own legacy on environmental protection.
A road through the Izembek refuge was originally approved under President Donald Trump in a deal with Alaskan officials, who have made it a priority to connect a remote town of 925 people with the rest of the state. But environmentalists have advocated against it to avoid fragmenting a pristine stretch of tundra and lagoons otherwise off-limits to motorized traffic. They have found a powerful ally in Carter, who has devoted more than four decades to the issue.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland outlined her position in a legal brief filed Tuesday in the litigation over Izembek in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. That brief left open the possibility the Interior Department might agree to some form of land swap in the future, to enable construction of a road, one possibly different from what was envisioned during the Trump years.
“This decision does not foreclose further consideration of a land exchange to address the community’s concerns, although such an exchange would likely be with different terms and conditions,” the brief said.
Interior said the Trump-era deal was made with procedural flaws and did not assess how a road could damage locals’ subsistence lifestyle and the region’s natural habitat. Haaland said she was signing off on withdrawing the land swap and would start a new process to help locals who want better access to hospital care while still ensuring the refuge can stay intact.
“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,” Haaland said in a statement. “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,” she added. “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 [the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act’s] subsistence and conservation purposes.”
Biden said Monday that he had spent time with his predecessor in recent days and that Carter had asked Biden to deliver a eulogy.
The Biden administration has also been searching for new ways to boost conservation measures across the state as it came under fire Monday for approving a giant oil development on Alaska’s North Slope.
As one of his last public acts, Carter took the unusual step of filing a brief last year that criticized the land-swap deal in Izembek, saying the road would undermine ANILCA, one of his signature achievements.
“My name is Jimmy Carter,” he wrote in the brief. “In my lifetime, I have been a farmer, a naval officer, a Sunday school teacher, an outdoorsman, a democracy activist, a builder, governor of Georgia and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And from 1977 to 1981, I had the privilege of serving as the 39th president of the United States.”
Despite losing the 1980 election, Carter successfully pressured Congress that year to pass ANILCA. The landmark law protected more than 100 million acres of Alaskan land, including national parks, national monuments and other sites.
“If President Carter had not weighed in, we would not be where we are,” said David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. “But in the long run, if Secretary Haaland allows that road, it certainly damages Carter’s legacy.”