Federal judge rules against King Cove land swap
In a victory for environmental groups, a federal judge has struck down a land swap intended to allow construction of a road to the village of King Cove brokered by President Trump’s former Interior secretary.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason issued her ruling Friday in Trustees for Alaska’s lawsuit against the deal, filed last year against then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the 31-page document, Gleason finds Zinke's actions “arbitrary and capricious” under the federal Administrative Procedure Act. The complaint was amended in April from the original grounds of the suit, which claimed that it violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The swap, announced in January 2018, was intended to provide an 11-mile road corridor through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to link the Southwest Alaska communities of King Cove and Cold Bay.
King Cove residents have long sought the road for emergency access for Cold Bay’s airport for medevac flights, after medical calls that have sent a series of U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopters to King Cove.
Gleason’s decision began by throwing out a claim by Interior Department lawyers that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue because “the real estate transaction authorized by the agreement will have no effect upon the physical environment in the refuge.”
“It is undisputed that the land exchange is intended to facilitate construction of a road; furthermore, as plaintiffs note, the parties involved in the exchange agreement have ‘expressed their intent to obtain all necessary permits and construct the road,’” Gleason wrote.
Friday’s decision also noted that Zinke’s predecessor under the Obama administration, Sally Jewell, had decided against the swap in 2013. Her grounds ranged from Izembek being “irretrievably damaged” by construction of the road to the existence of viable alternatives, as well as a claim that the harm of building a road “would not be offset by the protection of other lands to be received under an exchange.”
Instead of responding to those concerns, Gleason said, Zinke’s agreement “does not address or acknowledge” the department’s “contrary findings” under Jewell.
Although federal departments have previously altered their positions after presidential changes, Gleason said that the land swap was inconsistent with legal precedent requiring that rationales be provided in similar cases. She cited a similar federal decision against the Trump administration, in Montana District Court, which threw out a 2017 approval of the Keystone pipeline based on its refusal to substantially address concerns raised in a 2015 denial of the project.
Although the Interior Department argued in a response to the suit that Zinke “came to a more humane conclusion” based on the road’s effects for King Cove residents trumping concerns for wildlife, Gleason said that explanation was omitted from the agreement for the land swap.
“Here, the Secretary’s failure to acknowledge the change in agency policy and his failure to provide a reasoned explanation for that change in policy are serious errors,” Gleason wrote. “And there is no indication in the record that there are any disruptive consequences that would result from the setting aside of the exchange agreement.”
Gleason stopped short of handing Trustees for Alaska a full victory in the case, declining their request to issue an injunction against the deal because the plaintiffs “do not explain why an injunction would be necessary in this instance.”
On Friday, Trustees for Alaska hailed the ruling as halting an attempt “to trade away vital wetlands and wilderness” to build the road.
“The court’s decision today provides an important and essential check on Interior’s public land giveaway,” said Katie Strong, a senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska. “The agency’s attempt to skirt the law to benefit private or commercial interests disregards the intention of Congress and the purpose of the refuge system itself.”
Della Trumble, a spokeswoman for the King Cove Corp., said King Cove has seen 98 medevacs, including 21 in which the Coast Guard was involved, since 2014. She criticized Gleason’s decision in a statement Friday afternoon.
“While it is disappointing that the federal court found process flaws in [Interior’s] explanation of the agreement, the King Cove Group will never give up our fight for this land exchange. It is so crucial for safeguarding the lives of our families,” Trumble said. “This access is truly a matter of life and death for us.”
“The people of King Cove deserve to have access to a higher level of care, especially when the unforgiving weather prevents them from traveling from their isolated community by air or boat,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Alvin D. Osterback. “This land exchange would have accomplished that.”
Alaska lawmakers, who quickly hailed the deal’s announcement last year, were equally quick to express anger with the ruling Friday.
“The people of King Cove deserve reliable access to healthcare, and the fight to build a simple gravel road affording them that basic right has taken far too long,” state House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said in a statement. “Today’s U.S. [District] Court decision to invalidate the plan to allow a land exchange between the Interior Department and King Cove Corporation is disappointing and presents an unnecessary setback.”
Interior Department officials refused to say Friday whether the department would appeal the decision, noting that it does not comment on pending litigation.
Janis Harper and Megan Mazurek contributed information to this story.
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