JUNEAU, Alaska -- A federal appeals court heard arguments Tuesday in a dispute over a land exchange proposed during the Trump administration that is aimed at building a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska that residents of a remote Alaska community see as a critical health and safety issue.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month vacated a decision by a divided three-judge appeals panel that reversed a ruling rejecting a proposed land exchange. In setting aside the decision from the three-judge panel, the court also agreed to a rehearing of the matter by a fuller panel of judges. Conservation groups had petitioned for the rehearing, which took place Tuesday in California.
During the hearing, attorneys for the U.S. government, state of Alaska and conservation groups were peppered with narrowly tailored questions.
Residents of the remote community of King Cove have long sought a land connection through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay, which is about 18 miles (29 kilometers) away and has an all-weather airport. King Cove residents contend this is a health and safety issue. The refuge, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, contains internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl.
In 2013, during the Obama administration, Interior Department officials, including then-Secretary Sally Jewell, declined a land exchange, citing an environmental review that showed construction of a road would lead to “significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources.” Efforts to move forward with an exchange during the Trump administration faced legal challenges, including a 2019 agreement advanced by then-Secretary David Bernhardt that is the subject of the current litigation.
Last year, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, in arguing a position taken under the Trump administration, told an appeals court panel President Joe Biden's Interior secretary, Deb Haaland, planned to review the record and visit King Cove before taking her own position.
Haaland visited King Cove earlier this year and at the time of her Alaska visit told reporters she was “in a learning process” regarding the issue. Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said by email Tuesday she had no updates to share on the matter.
Attorneys for the U.S. government, in court documents, argued against a rehearing of the case. They said the ruling from the three-judge panel in March “correctly concluded that Secretary Bernhardt assumed the facts that motivated Secretary Jewell remained the same, but placed more weight on the health and well-being of the people of King Cove than the other factors.”
Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, which is representing a consortium of conservation groups in the case, said last month that in agreeing to review the matter, the court “signaled that there are significant legal questions with the split panel’s ruling that an unelected Interior Secretary may overrule Congress by giving away lands designated as Wilderness.”
The court did not indicate Tuesday when it might rule.