Zinke advances road through Alaska wildlife refuge

Zinke advances road through Alaska wildlife refuge
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Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior fast tracks study of drilling's Arctic impact: report Zinke left some details off public calendar: report House completes first half of 2019 spending bills MORE approved a land-transfer deal Monday to allow Alaska to build a road through a federal wildlife refuge in the southwestern part of the state.

The action closes a major chapter in a fight that has stretched more than three decades and became a top priority for Alaska, including Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (R), who is chairwoman of the committees overseeing both Interior Department policies and its budget.

The gravel, one-lane road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, connecting the remote community of King Cove to Cold Bay. Locals and Alaska leaders say it’s necessary to link King Cove to a large, all-weather airport, mostly for medical evacuations in poor weather.

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But conservationists have long fought the road. They say that the road would not be restricted to medical emergency use and would be destructive to the refuge.

The fight took on new urgency when the Obama administration rejected the request in 2013, saying the impact to the refuge would be too great.

But the Trump administration has been eager to get it approved, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE himself promised it to the congressional delegation.

“People do matter. And the president has made it very clear that our government works for the people and not the other way around,” Zinke told reporters Monday at an event at Murkowski’s Capitol Hill office after signing the agreement with King Cove Corporation, the Alaska Native government of King Cove.

The event was scheduled for Zinke’s office but was moved to Murkowski’s due to the federal government shutdown.

“This is very important because it not only represents the right thing to do, but for Alaska, it represents the ability for Alaskans to have a voice,” Zinke said. “State voices matter, local communities matter and this is a symbol from this administration that local voices matter.”

“Anywhere else in the United States of America, a 10-mile, one-lane, gravel, noncommercial-use road ought to be easy,” Murkowski said.

“And the reality is, it was not easy, often because of the politics, sometimes because of the personalities. But the personalities that persisted were those from King Cove, who knew that it was the right thing to do.”

The U.S. Coast Guard must currently use watercraft or helicopters for medical evacuations when the weather makes King Cove’s small airport unusable.

Conservationists immediately slammed the move as disastrous for the refuge and promised to sue to stop the road from being built.

“This is the latest and among the most egregious examples of the administration selling out irreplaceable public wildlands for commercial gain,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.

“Izembek National Wildlife Refuge protects some of the world’s most unique, fragile and essential wildlife habitat, but this administration thinks nothing of bulldozing a road through the middle of it, scarring the refuge forever. Izembek Refuge belongs to all Americans, and we will fight this illegal backroom deal that would irreparably damage this vital wilderness preserve in court.”

Greens have long argued that the road’s primary purposes are economic, such as access to the Japanese-owned Peter Pan Seafoods Inc. fish cannery in King Cove. Peter Pan isn’t interested in using the road commercially itself, but its employees might.

Under the deal, about 500 acres will be transferred from the Fish and Wildlife Service to King Cove, and the same amount, plus one acre, will be transferred from the Alaska Native government to the refuge.

That set-up is designed to ensure that the federal government gets equal value for the trade, a likely point of contention in any litigation.

The road itself would have to be a single lane, gravel and “primarily” used for noncommercial purposes, according to the agreement.

The land swap itself, as well as the environmental review process for the road, are subject to potential litigation.

Zinke said he is confident that everything is happening in a legal way.

“Our policy in the United States should not be based on litigation, suits and threats of suits. We’re making this policy based on the right thing to do,” Zinke said.

“The land swap was legal on fair and equitable value.”