March 26th, 2013 by

Last month, I discussed the opening salvo by Rep. Rob Bishop and the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation concerning the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But, as you may remember, it is not just NEPA that Rep. Bishop has his sights on: The Antiquities Act is also a point of focus for the subcommittee. Regardless of rumblings from Rep. Bishop, President Obama recently put his Antiquities Act authority to use and designated five new national monuments. The monuments include the First State National Monument in Delaware and 240,000 acres of high-desert plateau in New Mexico. The move has its supporters in environmentalists, local government officials and congressional delegations. It also has its detractors — among others, the same lawmakers that are looking to curtail the executive prerogative granted by the Antiquities Act.

Emperor geese in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Emperor geese in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Credit: K. Mueller/USFWS

One Hill standoff did reach a temporary conclusion last week when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar agreed to take a second look at approving a proposed gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska

Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska. Credit: Corey A. Anco/USFWS

The refuge is located in the midst of the Aleutian Islands, that long string of islands that juts out from Alaska’s southwest corner. While Izembek is the smallest of Alaska’s wildlife refuges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined it is one of the most ecologically unique based on its wildlife and fish habitats. The refuge itself is remote — remote in a way that many in the lower 48 states may not be able to appreciate. In order to reach the refuge, you must either take a ferry, which serves the bay that abuts the refuge once a month from April through October, or take a once a day flight from Anchorage and then a four-wheel drive vehicle across 40 miles of gravel roads. In other words, you have to really want to get there; Izembek isn’t a place you can just happen upon.

Grizzly sow and cub, Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska

Grizzly sow and cub, Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska. Credit: Corey A. Anco/USFWS

In 2009, Congress authorized a land exchange within Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for lands owned by Alaska and the King Cove Corporation (a tribal organization) in order to construct a single lane gravel road to connect the King Cove and Cold Bay communities. This proposed road would run through the refuge and the inset Izembek Wilderness. Its purpose would be for the health and safety of the communities, while prohibiting commercial purposes outside of public transportation. The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) compared the impacts of building the road with five alternative actions: no action, a more southern road alignment, a central road alignment, hovercraft service and six-day-a-week ferry service with an updated ferry terminal. Each alternative would impact the amount and location of the land exchange.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would choose the “no action” alternative, the response was a mixture of celebration from many environmental groups and ire from area residents and the Alaska congressional delegation. Senator Lisa Murkowski announced that she would put a hold on the nomination of Sally Jewell to be the new secretary of the interior until this decision was revisited. Last Wednesday, a deal was struck: Current Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to additional environmental reviews of the proposed road in exchange for Senator Murkowski lifting her hold on Sally Jewell. On Thursday morning, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted on Jewell’s nomination, advancing her to the full Senate.

So now the ball is back in the Interior Department’s court. Secretary Salazar directed that additional consultations take place with the relevant tribal governments, as well as a public meeting to take place in King Cove to gather more testimony on the proposed road. Once these further steps are accomplished, Interior will review all available information, including the EIS, and make its final decision. And when Interior’s final decision is made, chances are, it will be Sally Jewell at the helm of the agency as the newly confirmed secretary.