On March 25, 2009, this blog reported on the ongoing controversy regarding a land swap at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which would lead to the construction of a $15.6 million, nine-mile gravel road through federally designated wilderness in one of the most pristine refuges in the Refuge System.
The land swap was rolled into the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 — along with many popular wilderness bills — and that bill has now been signed into law. However, the land swap must face a final hurdle in that a formal Environmental Impact Statement must be prepared, and that report will in turn influence Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s decision on whether the land exchange is in the public interest and whether it should be allowed to proceed.
As the EIS process begins, a group of former senior Department of Interior officials have sent a formal letter to Secretary Salazar asking him to oppose the Izembek road project:
September 21, 2009
The Honorable Ken Salazar
Secretary, Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
Dear Secretary Salazar:
As former senior Department of the Interior officials, we strongly support the continuation of federal protection for wilderness in Alaska‘s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. We believe, and urge you to find, that removing internationally significant wilderness lands from federal protection in order to construct a road between the Alaskan communities of King Cove and Cold Bay is not in the public interest. In addition to its harmful impacts on Izembek‘s wilderness, the road would be the first ever authorized in a wilderness area in the 45-year history of the Wilderness Act. This dangerous precedent would jeopardize all the wilderness lands that we and so many others have worked tirelessly to set aside for future generations: every national park, refuge and wilderness area that the Department is pledged to protect.
For the reasons outlined in the attached addendum, we believe the exchange lands being proposed would not provide habitat comparable to the original refuge boundaries and the lagoons complex that would be lost. Indeed, no amount of exchange lands can compensate for the irreversible impacts a road would have on these globally significant wildlife habitat values. The sacrifice of habitat for bears, wolves, caribou and hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl—all remaining emperor geese, many threatened Steller’s eiders, tundra swans and the entire Pacific black brant population—is incalculable. The Refuge‘s current boundaries were established for sound scientific reasons that include protecting a watershed, an entire ecosystem and the wildlife that depend on them. This valuable wilderness resource should not be compromised for an unnecessary road.
In addition to sacrificing irreplaceable wilderness lands, the proposed land exchange and road will cost taxpayers millions of dollars to address a transportation problem that was solved in 1998, when Congress gave King Cove (a community of some 800 residents) $37.5 million in U.S. taxpayer‘s funds. This federal investment was used to upgrade medical facilities in King Cove, improve roads to the marine terminal, and purchase a 98-foot state-of–the- art hovercraft that provides a speedy and safe marine link between King Cove and Cold Bay. The hovercraft allows a staffed ambulance to travel between the communities in as little as 20 minutes, and has a 100 percent medevac success rate. It has been saving lives since it began operating in 2007.
The proposed 33.5 mile stretch of road from the King Cove airport to the Cold Bay road system will not provide greater or more consistent access than the hovercraft, as a road would be closed during harsh winter conditions with blowing snow making the road impassable. Ground blizzards and blowing snow are common experiences in this area, and many, much shorter roads around Cold Bay are closed for weeks at a time in the winter because maintenance crews are not able to remove snow fast enough before it fills in again. According to a 2003 EIS, the hovercraft can travel in wave heights of up to 10 feet 6 inches and winds over 45 miles per hour. Based on historical wind data for the region, the hovercraft should be operable more than 99 percent of the time. A September 2007 story in Fast Ferry International states: “The Aleutians East Borough says that the route selected for the hovercraft is ‘protected enough from the area‘s high winds and weather to ensure the trip can be made safely and dependably’.”
For all of these reasons, we believe that a land exchange would not be in the public interest.
In determining whether or not the land exchange and road are in the public interest, and as you proceed with further study, we ask the Department to:
- Prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement with a comprehensive analysis of the road proposal that incorporates findings on climate change, impacts to eelgrass beds, and the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development in and around the lands and waters of the Izembek Refuge and lagoon. As required by the National Environmental Policy Act and its implementing regulations, the study should analyze a full range of alternatives, including a no-action alternative.
- Designate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the lead agency responsible for the development of the Izembek Environmental Impact Statement.
- Complete a compatibility determination as required by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act.
- Prepare a cost-benefit analysis that includes the federal money that has already been spent to fulfill the emergency transportation need the proposed road is meant to address.
Theodore Roosevelt, founder of our National Wildlife Refuge System, once said that ”it is entirely in our power as a nation to preserve large tracts of wilderness.” Continuing to protect Izembek‘s incomparable wilderness is entirely in your power. We ask you to do so by finding the Izembek road not in the public interest.
Thank you for your consideration of our views.
(Secretary, Department of the Interior, 1993-2001)
(Assistant Secretary for Fish Wildlife and Parks, 1997-2001)
(Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, 1997-2001)
(Special Assistant to the Secretary of Interior for Alaska, 1999 to 2001)
(Solicitor, Department of the Interior, 1993-2001)
(Alaska Refuge Supervisor, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1991-2006)