Zinke Evading Public Scrutiny — and Public Comment — to Build a Road Through a National Wildlife Refuge

On July 12, 2017 and August 2, 2017, Defenders of Wildlife filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for all records related to the Trump administration’s consideration of a potentially illegal land exchange to remove wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from federal public ownership for the construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Defenders of Wildlife received more than 600 documents including evidence that the Interior Department is pursuing the land trade with King Cove Corporation — and doing so as much under the radar and without public comment as possible.

In order to pursue the road, the Interior Department is preparing to set aside a decades-old ban on development in federally protected wilderness areas. As notes in her Washington Post article, the documents obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, primarily internal agency emails, reveal how much discussion is intentionally taking place out of public view as federal, state, local and tribal officials work to approve a land exchange.

Congress directed Interior in 2009 to study whether it served the public interest to construct a road through the refuge. Four years later, the department produced an environmental-impact statement that concluded that the project should not be pursued because many species would be harmed, as the road’s construction, use and maintenance would disturb and fragment their habitat. In spring 2017, Fish and Wildlife Service officials produced an updated analysis of the two routes Alaska is contemplating through the refuge. It concluded that both would have “major” impacts on brants, tundra swans, emperor geese, bears, fish and, potentially, caribou.

“Both routes are equally destructive to the refuge’s purposes,” one official wrote in an April 28 email.

The documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make clear that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has elevated the issue to one of the agency’s top priorities, and his appointees have taken deliberate steps to conceal the plan from the public.

At one point, a refuge official relayed his conversation with a department attorney about questions Zinke raised over public review of agency action related to Alaska’s survey of a possible road through Izembek:

He indicated the Secretary would like to see folks on the ground doing the survey in the next couple of days,” the official emailed colleagues. “He did not seem to [sic] excited about the direction that it was going out for public comment.”

In a separate exchange three days later, a senior Interior Department attorney in Alaska emailed another high-ranking official there to clarify that the land swap proposed by the town’s tribal corporation should be kept under wraps.

“I’m not sure if you were provided a copy of the letter from King Cove Corporation to Secretary Zinke requesting a land exchange so here it is,” the lawyer wrote. “I understand it [sic] King Cove is not going to make this request public but rather let the Department roll it out when it is ready.”

 

 

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