ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Former President Jimmy Carter took the unusual step Monday of weighing in on a court case involving his landmark conservation law and a remote refuge in Alaska.
Carter filed an amicus curiae brief in the long-running legal dispute over efforts to build a road through the refuge, concerned that a recent ruling in favor of a proposed land swap intended to build a road through the National Refuge The Izembek Wildlife Act goes beyond this case and could allow millions of acres to be opened up for “adverse development.”
Residents of the King Cove community want to exchange land to build a gravel road through the refuge to provide access to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay for medical transportation.
Carter in 1980 signed the Alaska National Landmarks Conservation Act, which established 162,500 square miles (420,873 square kilometers) of national park land in Alaska. The act, he said, struck a “careful and lasting balance” between development and protection.
Congress created the 486-square-mile (1,258-square-kilometer) Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that year. Izembek Lagoon has one of the largest seagrass beds in the world, a rich food source for Pacific brant geese, endangered Steller’s eider sea ducks, and other migratory birds.
In 2013, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a land swap. Environmental groups oppose a path because of the precedent it would set and the potential damage to habitat for grizzly bears, caribou, salmon and seabirds.
Former President Donald Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, signed a new land swap deal, which a federal judge later ruled against. Later, Zinke’s successor, David Bernhardt, agreed to a trade, saying the needs of King Cove residents were more important. However, that agreement was overturned by another judge, US District Judge John Sedwick, in 2020.
In March, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed Sedwick’s decision. Earlier this month, Trustees for Alaska, representing environmental interests, requested that a larger group of appeals court judges review the case, and Carter’s brief supports that request. Current Home Secretary Deb Haaland visited the refuge and King Cove last month but did not announce any position on a land swap.
Carter said the split panel’s decision does not reflect the balance between development and protection.
“It’s too broad and allows the Secretary of the Interior to undo congressionally designated wilderness and other conservation lands. Unless reversed, it would open up tens of millions of acres of public lands to adverse development,” Carter wrote in a statement.
He asked the court to review the decision “and to uphold the unrivaled wilderness on Alaska’s national public lands.”
Opponents say the panel’s decision, if allowed to stand, would allow future interior secretaries to manage and negotiate land of national interest in Alaska as they see fit.
“And once the (national interest) lands are developed, how do you get that back?” said Peter Van Tuyn of Anchorage, one of three attorneys representing Carter in the filing.
“Not that a future secretary can undo anything. It’s a one-way valve there, and it’s extremely dangerous to the integrity of all of that land,” she said.
Deborah Williams, a former special assistant to the secretary of the interior under President Bill Clinton, said Congress made it clear in the legislation that it had two purposes: conservation and subsistence protection.
“The split panel decision would allow the secretary, without any public process or compliance with any other law, to engage in a backroom land swap,” Williams said.
“In order to exchange crucial land in any of the areas protected by (the law) for development purposes, this is certainly not what Congress intended, and this is not what the legislation clearly states,” he said. .
An Interior Department spokesman had no comment.