Energy

Alaskan Tribes Are Leaping Into A Court Fight Against Environmentalists Over ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter

An Alaskan tribal council voted Thursday to aide the Department of the Interior in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental organizations over a federal land swap with a remote community in Alaska.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approved a land swap in January, turning over 500 acres of federal wilderness to King Cove, Alaska, in order for the city to finish construction of the only land route to Cold Bay and the area’s only all-weather airport.

National environmental groups sued the federal government and Zinke days later to stop the deal on the grounds it would set a bad precedent for future land swaps.

“Congress said that you can have a road through these areas and here’s how you get it — not by trading lands away but by going through these specific steps,” Trustees for Alaska attorney Katie Strong told Anchorage Daily News. “If they can trade away land any time a development project comes along, none of Alaska’s public lands are safe under this administration.”

King Cove officials have petitioned the federal government for 35 years to turn over the land for the road. The road, they argued, was necessary to evacuate people needing immediate medical treatment in severe weather. At least 18 King Cove resident have died from causes attributable to mot having the road.

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The Aleutians East Bureau Assembly joined in the lawsuit on the side of the Interior and Zinke beside the City of King Cove, the King Cove Corporation, the Agdaagux Tribe and the Native Village of Belkofski.

“It is important that the people of King Cove and the Borough send a clear signal that they support the land exchange and construction of a road connecting the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay,” King Cove Corporation Spokeswoman Della Trumble said in a statement. “After fighting for decades for a road, we will do everything in our power to defend the land exchange. This is a matter of life and death for us.”

Nine environmental groups, led by Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, are pushing to block the land swap. Other groups are The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club, according to court documents.

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