ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Nine conservation groups on Wednesday sued the U.S. Interior Department over its latest proposed land trade that could lead to a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska.
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula contains internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl. A federal court judge in March rejected a previous land swap.
"This deal violates the same laws as the first one and we're prepared to continue the legal fight to protect this irreplaceable wilderness," said Bridget Psarianos, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law group representing the plaintiffs.
Residents of King Cove, a village just outside the refuge boundaries, for decades have been seeking a land connection through the refuge to Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport and better access to emergency flights.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 concluded that a road would cause irrevocable damage to the Izembek watershed. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a statement last month said the needs of King Cove residents were more important.
"I choose to place greater weight on the welfare and well-being of the Alaska Native people who call King Cove home," Bernhardt said.
Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block in an email said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
President Donald Trump's first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, signed the first proposed land exchange deal and made plans for the road.
However, U.S. District Court Judge Gleason in March ruled that Zinke had acted illegally. She said Zinke was not allowed to simply discard without a reasoned explanation the prior factual findings that the refuge watershed would be harmed.
The new land exchange agreement said Bernhardt had determined that it struck an appropriate balance in federal law between protecting the national interest in the refuge's environmental values and providing an adequate opportunity for economic and social needs of Alaska.
The exchange would trade land within the refuge for land owned by King Cove Corp. Spokeswoman Della Trumble last month said the land trade would be similar to three exchanges made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with three village corporations within Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
The village proposes a one-lane gravel road of about 12 miles (19 kilometers).
Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Izembek Refuge feeds millions of birds from three continents.
"You can't swap land here for anywhere else because there's nothing else like it," Spivak said.
The other groups suing are Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Wilderness League and Sierra Club.