JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is expected to visit Alaska in September, according to a court filing in a long-running dispute over a proposed land exchange aimed at building a road through a national wildlife refuge.
Haaland committed during her confirmation process to meeting with residents of King Cove, a community at the center of the dispute, according to the filing from Justice Department attorney Michael T. Gray. Those meetings aren't possible before an appeals court is set to hear arguments in the case Aug. 4 because people in the community will be busy with the subsistence fishing season, Gray said.
Haaland “will not complete her review of this matter until she has an opportunity to visit King Cove in person and meet with the people of King Cove and other stakeholders,” Gray wrote.
Gray said the dates of the trip are not set. Melissa Schwartz, an Interior Department spokesperson, said she had no details to add.
Residents of King Cove have long sought a land connection through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay, which has an all-weather airport. They call it a safety issue.
The refuge, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, contains internationally recognized habitat for migrating waterfowl.
Interior Department officials in 2013 declined a land exchange, citing an environmental review that showed a road would lead to “significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources that would not be offset by the protection of other lands to be received under an exchange."
Efforts during the Trump administration to move forward with a land exchange faced legal challenges.
A federal judge last year set aside a proposed agreement from 2019 between the Interior Department and King Cove Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation. The judge found in part that then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had failed to provide adequate reasoning to support a change in policy in favor of a land exchange and road. That case is now before an appeals court.