Just days before leaving office, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ordered federal officials to use a risky legal strategy to advance a controversial road project through a wildlife refuge in Alaska, according to a memo obtained by POLITICO and Type Investigations — a move that if implemented, could erode public land protections across the state.
The January 15 Bernhardt memo to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move forward with the permitting of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Alaska stunned critics who have opposed the project for more than two decades.
“To be deciding huge questions like this in the dark of night with the secretary taking the law into his own hands is totally inappropriate,” said Pat Lavin, senior policy adviser with Defenders of Wildlife, which is currently involved in litigation over the road project. “It is a kangaroo court for our public lands.”
A long-standing priority for the Alaska delegation — and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in particular — the 19-mile Izembek road, which was proposed to connect the village of King Cove with an airport in nearby Cold Bay, would cut through federally designated wilderness lands in the refuge.
Supporters of the project say the road would provide residents, the majority of whom are Alaska Natives, with access to medical care in the event of an emergency; opponents argue that it would do irreparable harm to a globally recognized wetland ecosystem that provides critical habitat to thousands of migratory bird species and is really designed to benefit the commercial seafood industry. King Cove, on the remote edge of the Alaskan Peninsula, is home to one of the state’s largest canneries.
Izembek has become a litmus test for the Biden administration’s approach to land use issues in Alaska, and the Interior Department’s policy on the road is still under review. Murkowski pressed Deb Haaland at her Senate confirmation hearing to be Interior secretary on whether DOI under her leadership would continue to defend projects finalized under the previous administration. Haaland, who was sworn in as the first Native American to head the agency earlier this week, replied that she’d be willing to meet with residents of King Cove to hear from them directly.
The Izembek road is still very much in limbo. Two earlier attempts by the Trump administration to orchestrate a land exchange in order to build the road were rejected by the courts, largely because they failed to properly address a 2013 Interior Department finding that the project would irreversibly damage the refuge and was not in the public interest.