Appeals court dismisses Trump-era Izembek refuge land exchange case

Jun. 20—WASHINGTON — The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a case regarding a contentious land exchange to develop a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge approved under former President Donald Trump.

The swap would facilitate an 11-mile gravel road through the refuge connecting the Southwest Alaska village of King Cove to a Cold Bay airstrip. King Cove residents, state officials and environmental groups have been at loggerheads for decades over the road, with locals saying it is critical to accessing emergency medical care, and conservation groups arguing that a road would threaten biological diversity in the refuge.

A land swap between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp. to develop a road was authorized in 2019 under Trump. Environmental groups challenged the deal in court.

In March 2022, a three-judge 9th Circuit panel found that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt correctly approved the swap. But in November, the court rejected that decision and ordered a rehearing.

Amid the legal battle, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew the Trump-era land exchange in March, which she called “flawed.” Instead, Interior opted to launch a new environmental review process and consider alternate plans for a swap.

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With the Trump-era exchange withdrawn, Interior moved to dismiss the case. The state of Alaska and King Cove Corp. tried to stop a dismissal, instead seeking a court decision on the swap.

The 9th Circuit dismissed the case Thursday.

Della Trumble, CEO of King Cove Corp., said the King Cove Group — a coalition including the corporation, Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, the Native Village of Belkofski, the City of King Cove and the Aleutians East Borough — is “angered” by the decision.

“We believe the land exchange is still legal and valid,” Trumble said in a prepared statement. “As Native people, we will continue to fight for our rights and demand tribal consultation, which the Department of Interior (DOI) failed to honor before executing its March 14, 2023 decision to terminate the Land Exchange.”

Though a judge was granted the dismissal, King Cove Group asserts the motion also vacated a 2020 District Court decision calling the 2019 exchange invalid.

“Consequently, yesterday’s 9th Circuit Court decision means the 2019 Land Exchange Agreement remains valid,” the release said. “According to the King Cove Group’s attorneys, the land exchange agreement can only change if a future court rules favorably on Secretary Haaland’s decision to withdraw.”

A spokesperson for Interior declined to comment on the latest ruling.

Environmental groups who opposed the land swap were pleased with the dismissal.

“We’re glad to see the Izembek court case wrap up after the Interior Department’s withdrawal of the challenged land exchange,” Bridget Psarianos, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, said in a statement.

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