The lack of respect and hypocrisy in the Biden Administration’s application of its policy of Environmental Justice toward Alaska Natives was on full display when on March 14 the White House forced Secretary Deb Haaland to withdraw from the July 3, 2019, Land Exchange in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that the Department of Interior had agreed with the King Cove Corporation and the Agdaagux and Belkofski tribes. This land exchange was intended to provide the people of King Cove with the opportunity to seek the permits to construct an 11-mile gravel road to medevac people from the all-weather Cold Bay Airport when the weather prevented aircraft from landing in King Cove.
The Biden Department of Justice had defended the land exchange in a March 2021 appeal to the 9th Circuit (which it won), and in an August 2022 appeal to an en banc panel of the 9th Circuit, a decision which was pending at the time of the Biden administration’s withdrawal. That’s right, the Biden administration defended the land exchange for two years after it came into office.
Why did the White House suddenly withdraw from the land exchange on March 14? Well, the day before the Biden administration had ever so reluctantly agreed that the Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve could proceed. This was the right call from a national energy security perspective. But hyper-outrage about the Willow decision from environmental groups went into overdrive.
So, a sacrifice was needed. Instead of the nameless White House official who was clueless enough to think that withdrawing from the land exchange would somehow appease the environmentalists for the Willow decision, Secretary Haaland was required to take responsibility.
The betrayal of the Alaska Natives in King Cove is consistent with the pattern of environmental justice application to Alaska. When environmental groups oppose a project in Alaska, such as the Tongass exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule or the Ambler Road Project, the White House will oppose it on “Environmental Justice” grounds. But there’s no Environmental Justice for a project needed by Alaska Natives when the environmental groups oppose a project.
In fairness, environmental groups have opposed the 2019 Izembek land exchange since former Secretary of Interior Bernhardt made it in 2019. They have ceaselessly lobbied the Biden White House to withdraw from it. It took Biden’s approval of the Willow Project to provide the administration’s political need to make it happen.
It is painful to see how the Biden administration’s and environmental group’s environmental justice hypocrisy impacts the lives of the people of King Cove. I have been intensely involved in the issue since my time in the Senate and when I was governor. Indeed, every Alaska governor and delegation member has supported an 11-mile gravel road between King Cove and the all-weather runway at Cold Bay.
Why? For humanitarian reasons. There is no certain way out of King Cove in a medical emergency during one of its notorious and frequent bad weather events. It is my understanding that 18 people have died in airplane crashes that have occurred while trying to get in or out of King Cove during a medical emergency in bad weather.
Nancy and I are aware of a mother trying to keep a sick newborn warm while crossing Cold Bay during a winter storm and then having to climb a 25-foot ladder on the Cold Bay side. Imagine a mother trying to hold a small baby while making that climb. Imagine sick elders trying to make that climb.
How can anyone think that this is OK? If this problem were occurring to them where they live they would react very differently. It is disgusting that the environmental groups are not concerned for the health and safety of people who live there.
Alaska came into the federal union late in 1959. We have little in common with the other states which have been part of the union for over 100 years and thus had the federal government facilitate construction of their transportation and other infrastructure.
Alaska’s problem is that our transportation lanes go through federal land and transportation access is always opposed by environmental groups (Willow, Ambler Road, Tongass Roadless Rule). Alaska must have the same opportunity that only the federal government can give us. We must continue to fight for our rights of access. This surely must include an 11-mile gravel road to medical safety for the people of King Cove. The White House lack of compassion is just not acceptable to Alaskans.
• Frank Murkowski is a former U.S. Senator and was the eighth governor of Alaska.