Scott Streater 
E&E News
Friday, July 20, 2018


The Interior Department completed on-the-ground survey work within Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge this week for a controversial road project that's facing a federal court challenge.

The survey work — in a congressionally designated wilderness area — is necessary to complete a land-exchange agreement signed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier this year that involves swapping unidentified land owned by an Alaskan tribal corporation for up to 500 acres in the refuge that would be used to build a nearly 12-mile-long gravel road.

Apparently completed this week without public notice, the helicopter survey involved dropping two crews into the wilderness area to mark the boundaries of the proposed road corridor. The crews used 122 stainless steel rods and posts with brass caps, according to a July 12 memorandum from Mitch Ellis, chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System's Alaska region.

As many as 80 helicopter landings were needed in the refuge to drop a pair of two-person crews along the route, the memo says.

Ellis' memo was circulated to E&E News and other media outlets by Defenders of Wildlife, which is part of a coalition of conservation groups that has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the land-exchange agreement between Interior and King Cove Corp. (E&E News PM, Jan. 31).

"We have chosen an alternative which minimizes the duration of the survey in order to minimize disturbance to wildlife and decrease the chance of human-bear interactions," Ellis wrote in the memo. "Although the alternative involves multiple helicopter landings within wilderness, it will allow us to accomplish the directed survey in a way that is ultimately less impactful because of the short duration — two days."

Sending survey crews out on foot, he wrote, "would require approximately ten days of walking back and forth across the wilderness, require hiking personnel to haze any bears near survey points, and extend the time it takes to accomplish the work."

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman referred questions to Interior's press office, which failed to respond to requests to comment by publication time.

Gwendolyn Dobbs, a Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman, said the Department of Justice sent Ellis' memo to attorneys representing the conservation groups. Dobbs said the attorneys confirmed from DOJ that the survey work outlined in the memo was completed, and that the Bureau of Land Management or a contractor hired by BLM conducted the surveys.

BLM officials could not be reached for comment.

A DOJ spokesman also could not be reached for comment. The department typically doesn't comment on ongoing litigation.

The survey angered the conservation groups, who filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.

In addition to Defenders, plaintiffs include Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club.

The groups maintain that the land exchange agreement violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the National Environmental Policy Act, and that the road itself, if built, will harm crucial wetlands and tarnish a formally designated wilderness area within the refuge.

Mark Salvo, Defenders' vice president of landscape conservation, called the "surprise" survey work "ludicrous," and said "the Trump administration is literally staking out an illegal and unnecessary road through globally renowned wilderness wetlands."

"This administration has repeatedly shown it has no respect for our environmental laws, wildlife or public lands, and will do anything to satisfy special interests," Salvo said. "First a secret agreement and now a surprise survey. What's next: bulldozers in the dead of night?"

David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, was equally upset.

"This is another egregious example of the Zinke Department of Interior using underhanded methods to circumvent established requirements for public process by rushing implementation of environmentally destructive projects without any opportunity for public participation," Raskin said in a statement.

He added, "This invasion of the Izembek Wilderness by helicopters and other machinery is yet another step in their continuing program to undermine the Wilderness Act and the public's right to maintain special places that have been protected from such degradations for many decades."
Agencies directed to 'move expeditiously'

But Zinke formally signed the land-swap deal with King Cove Corp. in January during a ceremony in Washington (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

The agreement outlined a process to complete the land-exchange agreement, including an appraisal process to identify lands suitable for exchange.

Ellis noted in his memo that the land exchange agreement "directs the agencies involved to move expeditiously."

The agreement, he wrote, states "the parties agree to use their best efforts to expedite all aspects and tasks of the agreement, including appraisals, permits, determinations, and any other decisions needed to fully implement the agreement."

He added, "As a result, the [Fish and Wildlife Service] has been directed to facilitate Alaska BLM in completing the U.S. Survey in an expedited manner."

Executing the land exchange is apparently on President Trump's radar, too.

Trump said last month at a White House meeting attended by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a proponent of the road, that his administration hoped to "get it done in the next couple of months" (E&E Daily, June 27).

Murkowski and other backers of the road project argue it's needed to provide King Cove residents with reliable access to medical care. People in the village must either ride an airplane or take a boat across a choppy bay to reach an all-weather airport in Cold Bay that can transport them to hospitals in Anchorage.

"I never thought this day would come," Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) said during a January signing ceremony for the land-exchange agreement.

The House last year approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) that would authorize the exchange of about 43,000 acres of state land for 206 acres of federal land inside the wildlife refuge for the road (Greenwire, July 20, 2017).

But a Senate version of Young's bill sponsored by Murkowski and fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) never advanced beyond the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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