By MARK THIESSEN, Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal appeals court panel on Wednesday overturned a ruling that rejected a land swap to allow construction of a road through an Alaska National Wildlife Refuge that is a habitat internationally recognized for migratory waterfowl.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals referred the decision to U.S. District Judge John Sedwick in Alaska for further review. Nine environmental groups had sued to stop the exchange on the Alaska Peninsula.
Sedwick blocked a deal that would have allowed the Secretary of the Interior and King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, to swap land in the Izembek National Nature Reserve in the eastern Aleutian Borough to build a long-sought gravel road that would allow King Cove residents access to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay for medical transportation.
David Bernhardt, who was Interior Secretary under then-President Donald Trump, agreed to the land swap and the environmental groups sued. The Biden administration has joined King Cove Corp., the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, Belkofski’s hometown and the state of Alaska in seeking the reversal of the district court ruling.
“We are very pleased with the decision,” said Della Trumble, spokesperson for King Cove Corp. and a member of the Agdaagux tribe, in a statement. “We will continue to work diligently to execute this decision.”
Congress established the 486 square mile (1,258 square kilometer) refuge in 1980. The Izembek Lagoon is home to one of the largest beds of eelgrass in the world, a rich food source for Pacific Brent Geese, endangered Steller’s eiders and other migratory birds.
King Cove and Cold Bay are approximately 29 kilometers apart. Without a road, the only access is by boat or plane.
King Cove Airport experiences frequent inclement weather, making travel difficult. For decades, residents have sought a safer route to Cold Bay Airport for medical evacuations.
Bernhardt noted in his 2019 decision that there had been more than 70 medical evacuations from King Cove to Cold Bay, Anchorage or Seattle in the previous six years and that the U.S. Coast Guard had handled about 20 medical evacuations at a cost approximately $50,000 per rescue mission.
The appeals court decision “means so much to the community of King Cove,” said its mayor, Warren Wilson.
Environmental groups that were part of the lawsuit denounced the decision.
“The Ninth Circuit’s failure to uphold the District Court’s decision to stop the proposed desecration of the Izembek Wilderness Refuge and the wildlife that depend on it allows the interior to cede public lands to serve vested interests. expense of the American people,” David C Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, said in a statement.
He added, “We will use all means at our disposal to continue the fight to save Refuge Izembek.”
Dan Ritzman, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Water Wildlife campaign, said the wilderness of the Izembek Refuge “is irreplaceable and globally significant for the wildlife that call it home. Pushing a route through the Refuge puts these precious resources in immediate danger and goes against the wishes of the American public.
Even though the US Department of Justice argued for cancellation, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has not decided whether she would support a route through the shelter.
She had planned to visit King Cove before making a decision, but those plans were postponed and the trip was not postponed.
Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Home Office, did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the court’s decision and whether Haaland will still travel to King Cove.
The appeals court panel split 2-1 in its decision. He found that Congress, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, gives the Secretary of the Interior discretion to balance economic and social needs with environmental interests. , and Bernhardt did so when he said that without a road, the needs of residents would not be adequately met.
The panel also found that Bernhardt did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act by changing the position of former Home Secretary Sally Jewel without adequate explanation, and that a special provision he invoked for the provision on the exchange of land was not subject to the special procedures required under the law. act of preservation.
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