The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge lies along the Bering Sea side of the Alaska Peninsula. Izembek is an amazingly important migration stopover for many birds migrating to and from Arctic breeding grounds. The area regularly supports more than 90 percent of Brant that use the Pacific Flyway, more than half the world population of Emperor Geese, and a significant percentage of the world populations of Steller's Eider and Taverner's Cackling Goose. More than 82 species have been documented here. These are a few of the reasons Izembek is part of the globally significant Izembek-Moffet-Kinzarof Lagoons Important Bird Area.
In January 2018, the Department of the Interior signed a land transfer agreement with King Cove Corporation, which traded away vital bird habitat in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The explicit purpose of the agreement was to facilitate the building of a road through federally designated wilderness and internationally recognized bird habitat.
National Audubon Society and eight other parties sued the Department of the Interior for this questionable deal. The lawsuit (filed on January 31, 2018) argued that the agreement violates sections of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The court agreed and on March 29, held that the Department of the Interior failed to explain its decision to enter the Exchange Agreement with King Cove in light of its previous decision that alternatives to a road exist and that a road would cause significant environmental harm. The federal court's decision vacated the land exchange. The decision was a big win for the birds and other wildlife in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Building a road through Izembek's wilderness and wetlands would sacrifice key habitats and bring about significant long-term degradation to bird and wilderness values. Here's why:
- A road would cut through the biological heart of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Izembek's cold-water lagoons and internationally significant wetlands are critically-important resting places for migrating waterfowl. Virtually all of the world's Pacific Brant and more than half of the Emperor Geese stop at Izembek to feed and rest. The refuge also is home to Tundra Swans, ptarmigan, Bald Eagles, and hundreds of thousands of geese, as well as threatened species, such as Steller’s Eiders. Many mammals also use the refuge including caribou, brown bears, wolves, and wolverines.
- A road is not needed. The Alaska congressional delegation claims the road is necessary to address the health and safety needs of the community of King Cove. In fact, Congress addressed those needs in 1998, when it passed the King Cove Health and Safety Act. That legislation provided $37.5 million to upgrade King Cove’s medical facilities, purchase a hovercraft to provide regular ferry and emergency medical service between King Cove and Cold Bay, construct new marine terminals, and build a road between the town of King Cove and the hovercraft terminal. This law specifically prohibited a road through Izembek’s federally protected Wilderness.
- The hovercraft worked. Hovercraft service for medical evacuation began full-time operation on August 7, 2007. By all accounts, the hovercraft service quickly and safely met every medical evacuation need of the King Cove community, transporting people and ambulances between the two communities in an average of 20 minutes. Driving the proposed road would take 1–2 hours, in good weather. The Aleutian East Borough chose to suspend hovercraft service, saying it was having staffing and funding problems. Yet the Borough is now trying to transfer the hovercraft for use in another community.
- The land swap required to build a road would sacrifice key habitats: more than 200 acres of critical, internationally recognized wildlife habitat in exchange for a larger amount of less important habitat. Izembek and Kinzarof lagoons contain some of the largest eelgrass beds in the world, which attract tens of thousands of migratory birds annually. The narrow isthmus between the two lagoons is an important nesting area for Tundra Swans, provides a migration corridor for caribou, and provides foraging grounds for brown bears. The 56,000 acres of proposed exchange lands do not offer comparable protection or habitat.
- A road through Wilderness is incompatible with the purposes for which Congress created the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Congress created the Refuge to conserve fish and wildlife populations and their habitats; to fulfill the United States' international treaty obligations (such as the four migratory bird treaties and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance); to provide for continued subsistence by local residents; and to ensure water quality and quantity within the Refuge. The wildlife values of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge are globally significant, and should not be compromised, especially when there are reasonable alternatives for local transportation.