U.S. judge strikes down land swap for road through Alaska wildlife refuge

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday struck down a Trump administration land trade allowing construction of a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason said in a written ruling that Ryan Zinke, then secretary of the Department of the Interior, violated federal law in 2018 by summarily reversing an Obama-era policy without justification.

Zinke failed to provide “any reasoned explanation for the change of course” from the Obama-era decision that rejected a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as too environmentally destructive to allow, Gleason wrote.

The ruling puts a stop, at least temporarily, to the process that would punch a road through the refuge to connect the Aleut village of King Cove, home to about 1,000 people, to the airport at the nearby village of Cold Bay.

That project has been highly controversial. Izembek, encompassing 417,500 acres, is a globally-recognized haven for migratory birds; almost all of the world’s Pacific black brant, a type of goose, feed and rest at Izembek Lagoon.The refuge is also home to bears, caribou, wolves and other wildlife.

Road advocates have argued for decades that the project is needed to give King Cove residents an emergency evacuation route. The seafood industry would also benefit by gaining a route to ferry fish to the airport in Cold Bay.”This is a disappointing case and a disappointing ruling. There have been nearly 100 medevacs in King Cove - many carried out by the Coast Guard - since 2014 alone,” Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said in a written statement.

Opponents argue that the project would set a dangerous precedent for industrialization of national wildlife refuges and designated wilderness areas, and that it would irreparably harm Izembek.

The Obama administration nixed the land-trade idea in 2013 after a four-year environmental impact statement process. Zinke, when he approved the land trade, failed to address the Obama administration’s factual findings, Gleason said.

The plaintiffs are several environmental groups.

“The federal court decision halts the planned desecration of the Izembek Refuge Wilderness and wildlife and is yet another blow to Interior’s aggressive policy of giving away public lands to serve special interests at the expense of the American people,” David C. Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

An Interior spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort, said that the department could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; editing by Dan Whitcomb and G Crosse