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Izembek lagoon. Photo Credit: USFWS

King Cove Land Exchange – Privatization of public lands

King Cove Land Exchange

Lies paved the way for King Cove Native Corporation’s proposed 12-mile road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. First, the Corporation insisted that it needed the road to haul fresh fish to an airport for distribution. When that didn’t work, it changed its tune, claiming the road is necessary for emergency medical services (despite an Interior analysis finding it would be impassable during winter storms). One truth is clear, however: a road would be disastrous to Izembek, which is a critical stop on the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds.

King Cove Land Exchange Location

King Cove Land Exchange

A privatization scheme in Alaska would build an unnecessary 12-mile-long road through a national wildlife refuge.

King Cove Land Exchange- The Details

On January 22, 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement to exchange a 12-mile strip of public land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on the Alaska Peninsula. In exchange for the refuge parcel, the proponent, King Cove Native Corporation, would trade the U.S. an equally-valued amount of its own land. The trade would enable the Native corporation to build a road from the village of King Cove to a regional airport at Cold Bay, about 20 miles away. The road would cross a wilderness area inside the refuge, destroying unique habitat that supports more than 200 species of wildlife. Izembek NWR is a critical stop on the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, with endangered Steller’s Eider and nearly all the world’s Emperor Geese and Pacific Black Brant dependent on the refuge’s eelgrass lagoons.

King Cove now claims this road is the only safe way to get residents in need of medical evacuation to the Cold Bay airport during inclement weather. However, a 2012 Interior analysis found not only that alternate means of evacuation were safe and feasible, but also that a road through the refuge would often be impassable during winter storms. Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected King Cove’s land exchange proposal in 2013 after determining the benefits of acquiring additional land for the National Wildlife Refuge system would not compensate for the proposed road’s impact on Izembek’s unique habitat.

King Cove was not deterred by Jewell’s decision. It has been biding its time for decades, waiting for a favorable opportunity—since 1994 there have been at least eight legislative attempts to push this exchange through. The Trump administration’s general disdain for public lands and environmental concerns offered another opportunity. Zinke, despite his predecessor’s recognition of the ecological importance of the area, revived the proposal soon after he was confirmed. Internal documents show Interior sought to keep reconsideration of the exchange shielded from public view, and that the idea and push to reexamine the trade came straight from Zinke’s office. He eventually approved the trade without taking public comment or conducting any new environmental analysis.

The history of the King Cove exchange illustrates that ostensible public benefits can be used to conceal true motivations behind privatization deals. When the road was first proposed, there was no claimed need for safe medical evacuations during winter storms. Rather, King Cove’s 1994 resolution stated the road would provide a link from the local salmon processor to the Cold Bay airport. In 1995, then-Governor Tony Knowles reiterated the road was needed to transport fresh salmon from King Cove to the airport. Representative Don Young’s (R-AK) 1997 bill placed no restrictions on use of the road. It wasn’t until later, after it became clear that commerce alone could not justify a road across a remote and ecologically rich Alaska wildlife refuge, that public health and safety became the overriding need.

Although recent King Cove exchange bills strictly limited the road to noncommercial uses only, the exchange agreement signed by Secretary Zinke does not. And although the agreement purports to prohibit the commercial transport of fish on the new road, its exception for individuals and small businesses could effectively nullify the provision, according to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

On March 29, 2019, the federal district court in Alaska rejected the proposed trade, finding that Zinke and Interior violated the law by failing to provide any rationale to support reversing Jewell’s decision. Interior initially appealed the court’s decision but withdrew its appeal on July 22, 2019. The next day Interior announced that current Secretary David Bernhardt had reached a new agreement with King Cove a week earlier. The agreement was similar to Zinke’s—though the new deal proved critics right by not permitting commercial transport of salmon along the road—but came with 20 pages of support for the decision. Conservationists filed a new lawsuit to overturn the deal on August 7, 2019.

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