Secretary of Interior withdraws King Cove land exchange

Secretary of Interior withdraws King Cove land exchange, causing stir from Alaska officials
Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 3:22 PM AKDT|Updated: Mar. 15, 2023 at 6:52 AM AKDT
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WASHINGTON (KTUU) - The U.S. Department of Interior announced on Tuesday that a land exchange in the Alaska Peninsula’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has been withdrawn.

The exchange has been controversial for years, but on Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland put her foot down, effectively protecting refuge for the time being.

The land exchange was between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp. and was initially approved by former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in July 2019.

The proposal would have transferred approximately 200 acres within the wildlife refuge to the state of Alaska, making it possible for the state to build a single-lane gravel road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.

Haaland made the decision after determining the land exchange “contained procedural flaws and was not consistent with Departmental policy.” A press release from the Department of the Interior went on to say the exchange did not involve public participation, nor did it look at the potential consequences of the exchange on subsistence users and animal habitats.

Conservation organizations have been advocating and urging Haaland to reject the land exchange in order to protect the 100 million acres of Alaska’s public lands for future generations and protect the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act.

“The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities,” Secretary Haaland said in a statement. “I reject that binary choice. I am a lifelong conservationist, and I believe deeply in the need to protect our lands and waters and honor our obligations to Tribal Nations. Respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening – really listening – to Tribal communities.”

Della Trumble, CEO of the King Cove Corp., had a phone call with Haaland around noon on Tuesday. Trumble said Haaland agreed to continue to work with them.

“We had a phone call with her and it was emotional on all sides. I think she supports the land exchange and a road, and we’ll work through this process with her,” Trumble said.

Some advocates for the construction of the road say that this is a potentially life-or-death decision, as it would connect King Cove to life-saving resources.

“There’s been a total of 206 medivacs since December 2013, twenty-eight which were Coast Guard assists coming directly into King Cove and then 178 non-Coast Guard,” Trumble said.

Trustees for Alaska represent 13 organizations in litigation challenging the 2019 land exchange decision. Brook Brisson, a senior staff attorney for Trustees, said this is a positive first step for Izembek.

“From what we’ve seen so far it does look like an important first step to protecting the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, we have some questions about what some of the next steps may be that the Secretary may take and what that means not just for the Izembek Refuge but for conservation and subsistence lands across Alaska,” Brisson said.

Other Alaskans, including Sen. Dan Sullivan and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, have reacted to the withdrawal of the land exchange with criticism.

“This decision is the latest act in Secretary Haaland’s disingenuous playbook: Tell Alaskans, particularly Alaska Native People, that you support something, like Alaska Native Vietnam-era veteran allotments or the King Cove road, and then purposefully delay it for years so it can never actually happen,” Sullivan said in a statement.

Dunleavy criticized Haaland’s move, claiming that it will put King Cove residents at greater risk of not getting emergency medical treatment due to the lack of an 11-mile road from King Cove to Cold Bay.

“While Secretary Haaland claims that she wants to consider alternative land exchanges, that will push the entire process to square one and place the lives of King Cove residents at risk today,” Dunleavy said.

Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola echoed Dunleavy’s thoughts in expressing her frustration with the roadblock of a potential road between the two communities.

“It is unclear to me why the (Interior) Department decided that the existing proposal, which they had previously defended in court, is now seen as deficient,” Peltola said in a statement. “However, I am glad that the Secretary has stated her support to the people of King Cove for a road and other land exchange proposals, and I encourage the Department to rapidly begin their process for doing so, in order to minimize the effects of this disruption. The people of King Cove have waited too long for the basic right of access to life-saving medical evacuation, and they cannot afford more unnecessary delays.”

Haaland went on to say her team is beginning a new process of reviewing previous proposals for a land exchange, “rooted in a commitment to engagement in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation with Tribes, to protecting the national wildlife refuge system, and to upholding the integrity of ANILCA’s subsistence and conservation purposes.”

The original proposal involved the federal government offering the state 200 acres within the refuge, enough to build a gravel road between King Cove and Cold Bay. In return, the state would transfer to the federal government about 43,000 acres of state land as well as 13,300 acres of land owned by the King Cove Corp.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.