ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Nine environmental groups sued the U.S. government Wednesday to block a land trade that could lead to construction of a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska that is habitat for migrating waterfowl.
The groups sued Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who signed an agreement last week to swap land in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for private land held by an Alaska Native village corporation.
The village of King Cove wants a road through Izembek for land access to the nearby community of Cold Bay, home to an all-weather airport. The road would slice through the length of a strip of land separating lagoons used by hundreds of thousands of waterfowl.
The groups contend that Zinke lacks the authority to swap land within a refuge established by Congress.
"Secretary Zinke has violated his most sacred responsibility to the American people," Fran Mauer, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist and Alaska representative of Wilderness Watch, said in the announcement of the lawsuit filed in Anchorage.
"Exhaustive studies have shown that a road through the Izembek Wilderness would severely impact wildlife and destroy the wilderness character of one of our nation's most diverse and biologically productive national wildlife refuges," Mauer said.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke, referred a request for comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which said it's reviewing the lawsuit and had no further comment.
When Zinke signed the land trade agreement last week, he said the 12-mile (19-kilometer) section of the road through the refuge would cause no harm to wildlife but would make a difference to children or mothers who need to get to a hospital. He said the road was a priority for President Donald Trump.
Residents of King Cove, with a population of more than 900, have sought access for decades to Cold Bay, with the all-weather airport. King Cove is wedged between mountains and ocean near the end of the Alaska Peninsula and flights often are canceled because of high wind or other foul weather.
Backers of the road say commercial traffic would be banned on the one-lane, gravel road.
Congress in 1997 addressed King Cove transportation by providing $37.5 million for water access to Cold Bay that included a $9 million hovercraft. The regional governing body took the vessel out of service after deciding it was too expensive and unreliable to operate.
In establishing the refuge, the Interior Department called it the most important concentration point for waterfowl in Alaska.
Katie Strong, an attorney for Trustees of Alaska, the environmental law firm representing the groups, said Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to preserve natural landscapes, wildlife and unaltered ecosystems. It also designated wilderness areas, including Izembek.
The lawsuit says Zinke improperly used a provision of the law for the land swap.
"If allowed to stand, this would be the first time that wilderness is taken away from the American public with the stroke of one person's pen," Strong said. "It is shortsighted, unlawful, and contrary to the careful deal struck" in the Alaska conservation law.