State Seeks to Join Izembek Lawsuit

The State of Alaska has tried to back up the village of King Cove on their quest to build a road through protected wilderness. Now, the state’s prepared to follow them into court.

Download Audio

Trading land with the federal government was the last, best hope to free up space in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for a road. It would have connected King Cove to the airport at Cold Bay.

Wetlands in the Izembek NWR. (Kristine Sowl/USFWS)
Wetlands in the Izembek NWR. (Kristine Sowl/USFWS)

After a long analysis, the Interior Department decided against the swap in December. It was a big disappointment for King Cove — and also the state of Alaska.

“We have 43,000 acres of land that we were going to exchange,” Tom Lenhart, an assistant attorney general, said. “As well as, we obviously have an interest in the health and safety of our citizens. So there’s very valid interest there.”

That’s why Lenhart filed a petition on the state’s behalf in U.S. District Court this week.

“It’s a motion to intervene, which means we are moving to join the King Cove plaintiff group that has already filed suit,” he said.

A mix of private citizens and governments from around King Cove filed that suit at the beginning of June. They argue that the Interior Secretary violated federal law when she rejected the land exchange out of concern for wildlife in the refuge.

Lenhart says the state could provide some handy tools for making that case.

“Not just in law, to assist,” he said. “But with our biologists and planners, et cetera, who were in there for the last couple of years with the Department of the Interior, you know, looking at these alternatives.”

But first, the court will have to weigh in on the state’s request to join in. Even if they don’t get permission, Alaska still has another lawsuit in the pipeline. The state’s started the process to sue the government for a right of way through the Izembek refuge.

Della Trumble, a spokesperson for the King Cove Corporation, hopes the federal government’s taking note of all this.

“Everybody’s going to every possible extent, or avenue possible, to make this happen,” Trumble said. “Hopefully the message is, ‘You’ve got to work with us.’ They’ve got to work with us on this issue.”

Trumble says it’s been a quiet summer in King Cove, with calm weather and no medical emergencies.

But it’s not always so peaceful. There were 11 medevac flights this year — many in rough weather.

Trumble says a road would provide reliable transportation out of the village during emergencies. And after lobbying for so many years, Trumble says getting a road would also let residents move on.