Interior Secretary Haaland on full visit to Alaska | Alaska News

By BECKY BOHRER, Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is in the midst of her first visit to Alaska in that role, including to a community at the center of a long-running dispute over a proposed land swap to build a road through a national wildlife refuge.

Residents of King Cove saw a road as a life and safety issue. Haaland was at King Cove on Wednesday with Governor Mike Dunleavy and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski. Residents of King Cove have long sought a land connection via the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Cold Bay, which is approximately 29 kilometers away and has an airport accessible at all times.

The sanctuary is near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula and contains internationally recognized habitat for migratory waterfowl.

Haaland, speaking to reporters in Anchorage on Thursday, said she is still “in a learning process” regarding the matter and had no announcement to make on the matter at this time.

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The Home Office said Haaland pledged to visit the community early in her tenure, “as part of her ongoing efforts to hear directly from communities about policies that affect them.” Haaland, Murkowski and the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service also visited Cold Bay and the refuge, the department said.

Last summer, a lawyer for the US Department of Justice said Haaland had not decided what position she would take on a proposed land swap, saying Haaland planned to review the case and visit King Cove before to make a decision. A planned trip to Alaska last year did not materialize.

In 2013, then-Secretary Sally Jewell traveled to King Cove to hear from residents. Jewell then issued a ruling denying a land swap, saying she supported a finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that building a road through the refuge would cause irreversible damage to the refuge and the wildlife that depends on it.

Under the Trump administration, efforts to push forward a land swap have faced legal challenges.

But last month, a split federal appeals court panel overturned a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick that struck down a 2019 draft agreement that then-Secretary David Bernhardt had entered into with King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation.

Sedwick had found in part that Bernhardt had failed to provide adequate reasoning to support a policy change in favor of a land exchange and a road. The decision of the Court of Appeal disagreed with this assessment.

“The choice to give greater weight to the interests of King Cove residents sufficiently explained the change in policy,” the ruling said.

Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, vowed last month to continue her efforts to “combat this illegal land swap to protect the irreplaceable values ​​of Izembek and all protected public lands in Alaska.” The Alaska administrators represented conservation groups that challenged the proposed land swap.

The Eastern Aleutian Borough says flights from the unpaved King Cove airstrip are “delayed or canceled approximately 30% of the time, typically due to severe weather conditions.” The community often experiences gales, snow squalls or heavy fog, depending on the borough. It says the community of Cold Bay has a 10,000-foot (3,048-meter) paved runway at its all-weather airport.

Della Trumble, CEO of King Cove Corp., said she thought it was important for Haaland to be able to hear directly from residents.

“At this point, we are doing everything we can and continuing to move forward and with the hope that we can put all of this behind us and move forward and be able to have safe access between these two communities,” said Trumble.

Dunleavy, in a statement, said local residents “deserve to be heard by the federal government.”

Haaland said she was “very thoughtful”.

“I want people to know that we care about their community. We care about a lot of things,” she said.

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said via email that Haaland’s visit to Alaska includes meetings with “Alaska Native leaders and elders, local, state and federal elected officials, and members of the conservation, outdoor recreation and labor community to discuss sustainable economies, federal investments and infrastructure needs.

Haaland said she was due to leave on Sunday.

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Betty K. Park