By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - A federal judge has upheld a decision by the U.S. government to protect Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, blocking a proposed 10-mile (16-km) gravel road linking an Aleutian Islands fishing community to an all-weather airport for medical evacuations.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell first denied the road proposal in December 2013, citing potential for "irreversible damage" to wildlife which depend on the refuge, particularly the Pacific black brant.
Plaintiffs including the city of King Cove filed a federal lawsuit the following year, arguing that Jewell had wrongly prevented the village of 938 residents from building the congressionally authorized road.
U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland, however, ruled on Tuesday that while a 2009 public lands law had authorized a land exchange for the road to be built, the project still needed the interior secretary's approval.
"Given the sensitive nature of the portion of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge, which the road would cross, the (National Environmental Policy Act) requirement for approval of the proposed road probably doomed the project," Holland wrote.
"Perhaps Congress will now think better of its decision to encumber the King Cove Road project with a NEPA requirement."
Like many of Alaska's coastal communities, no road leads in or out of King Cove. The local airstrip in Cold Bay is closed at least 100 days a year due to severe weather.
King Cove community leaders say residents must rely on medical evacuations for emergency help, as they did four times last month.
Since Jewell denied the road proposal nearly two years ago, there have been 32 emergency evacuations by air, including 10 assisted by the Coast Guard.
"We are not going to give up until we get this road," said King Cove resident Della Trumble. "Our efforts to obtain legislative relief remain unabated."
The dispute has pitted Jewell against Alaska's congressional delegation, which more than once has denounced her actions as "heartless."
Republican Lisa Murkowski, the senior U.S. senator from Alaska who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies, is pursuing another avenue. Officials say language put in an appropriations bill would remove Jewell's approval from the process.
In 2009, Congress approved an exchange giving the federal government 56,000 acres (23,000 hectares) from the state and the King Cove Native Corp. Of that, 46,000 acres (19,000 hectares)receive wilderness status. King Cove was to receive 206 acres (83 hectares) for the road.
(Reporting by Steve Quinn; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Mohammad Zargham)