Trump administration forges ahead with building ‘Road to Nowhere’ through Alaska wildlife refuge

Sen. Lisa Murkowski fought hard for road in Alaska.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has long fought for the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. CREDIT: Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has long fought for the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. CREDIT: Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Whether it’s pushing for building roads in remote areas of Alaska or walls on the nation’s southern border, the Trump administration has shown little concern for the potential harm caused by developing major infrastructure projects in wildlife refuges.

In Alaska, Trump’s Department of the Interior reached an agreement to allow the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, the Washington Post reported Saturday. If built, the so-called “Road to Nowhere” would set a precedent as the first new road built in a protected wilderness area in the United States.

At issue is a proposal to build 20 miles of road through congressionally-protected wilderness in the refuge in Alaska to connect the town of King Cove (population 948), to Cold Bay (population 108)  — ostensibly to help residents get access to a larger airport for health care purposes.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and an entity called King Cove Corp., a tribal organization that manages the area, are expected to sign a land swap agreement on January 22 that would allow construction of the road through the wildlife refuge. The corporation reportedly identified two parcels of land totaling 2,604 acres of tribal land as a possible swap for land within the Izembek refuge.

According to Defenders of Wildlife, the proposed agreement resulted from a “backroom deal” between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp. “The Trump administration has approved an unprecedented and illegal proposal to sell out Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group, said in a statement issued Saturday. “This boondoggle road project will bulldoze a fragile wildlife corridor.”

Opponents also note that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent on alternative solutions to improve medical care  — including to fulfill King Cove’s request for a hovercraft and to upgrade its own health clinic — under the condition that the road would therefore not be built. The road would be built through tundra and lagoons that provide a vital feeding ground for migrating birds as well as habitat for bears, caribou and other species, according to the Washington Post. The refuge was established by President Dwight Eisenhower.

After extensive studies, the Interior Department concluded the road should not be constructed. In 2013, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell found that that a road through the Izembek refuge would irrevocably damage natural resources and should be rejected. In 2015, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld Jewell’s decision to protect the refuge.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has long fought for the road, referring to it as a “life-saving road” that will allow residents of King Cove easier access to medical care in other villages.

Earlier this decade, Murkowski was citing other reasons for building the road. “The decades-old push to get the road built between King Cove and the Cold Bay Airport so that we can have greater access for transportation is going to be a critical ingredient in that thriving economic future going out for the next 100 years,” Murkowski told residents of King Cove when she visited the town in 2011.

A review of political gifts to Murkowski and her political action committee, Denali Leadership PAC, revealed several donations made by organizations and lobbyists with a financial stake in the construction of the road.

Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under President Bill Clinton, contends the road’s proponents have changed their sales pitch over the last 25 years, now claiming they have no intention of hauling seafood over the road. They say the road is simply needed for emergency medical evacuations, Babbitt wrote in a 2014 newspaper op-ed.

The road was originally proposed to provide ground transportation for workers and products of Japanese-owned Peter Pan Seafoods located in King Cove, explained David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. Based on the evidence, the proposed Izembek road “has always been to haul fish,” he wrote in an op-ed last June.

The Center for Biological Diversity told the Washington Post that it is prepared to challenge the agreement in federal court. The proposed project would likely violate the Wilderness Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, said Randi Spivak, who directs the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Trump administration also wants to build a road through a protected wildlife area along the nation’s southern border. The road will be used to haul materials for Trump’s planned border wall with Mexico.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is preparing to construct the first leg of the border wall through the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. The refuge comprises 2,088-acres along the U.S.-Mexico border and was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds. The refuge is home to at least 400 species of birds, 450 types of plants, and half of the butterfly species found in North America. It is also home to the highly-endangered ocelot.

The construction plan would require building a road south of the wall, as well as clearing land on either side. Such construction would “essentially destroy the refuge,” a federal official involved in the planning of the project, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Texas Observer.

Environmental and conservation groups have expressed opposition to Trump’s proposed border wall. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife report from 2016 found that more than 100 animals listed as endangered, threatened, or candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act could be affected by the border wall.

Aside from federally protected areas, the Trump administration also is granting federal agencies waivers from a long list of environmental laws in order to expedite upgrades to barriers on the U.S. border with Mexico. In September, Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Homeland Security, said a waiver from environmental laws was necessary so that the Customs and Border Protection can take “immediate action” to upgrade border barriers.

The waivers, however, show the Trump administration’s disregard for the environment and the rule of law, according to environmental advocates.