Beautiful And Remote, The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

Located on the coastal side of the central Aleutians East Borough, the beautiful and remote Izembek National Wildlife Refuge was established more than three decades ago to conserve an important habitat for migratory birds, brown bears and salmon, as well as other wildlife.

(Cover: Red Fox at Kinzarof Lagoon in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (Kristine Sowl, USFWS)

Izembek is the smallest of Alaska’s refuges at 315,000 acres, 300,000 of which were designated as Wilderness in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. In 1986, the Izembek Refuge was the first wetland in the United States recognized as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

Fireweed in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (Kristine Sowl, USFWS)

The heart of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is the Izembek Lagoon, which contains one the largest eelgrass beds in the world. Eelgrass is a vital food source for migratory birds as they travel between Alaska and warmer wintering grounds along the Pacific Flyway. Hundreds of thousands of birds stop in the Izembek Refuge every fall to fuel up for their long migrations to their wintering grounds – including nearly the entire population of Pacific black brant, Taverner’s cackling geese and emperor geese.

Emperor geese flying over Izembek Lagoon (K. Mueller, USFWS)

Izembek’s wildlife extends beyond birds to wolf, fox and wolverines; larger animals like moose, brown bears and the Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd; and marine life including five species of salmon, harbor seals, sea otters, walrus, threatened Steller sea lions, and a variety of whale species.

For decades, there has been intense debate over building a road through the designated wilderness of the Izembek Refuge, along the narrow isthmus connecting the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. King Cove road advocates have argued that constructing a road through Izembek is necessary to provide access to the Cold Bay Airport during medical emergencies. Refuge advocates, on the other hand, have pointed to several reasons why building a road is a bad idea. These include the detrimental effects a road would have on the refuge itself; the availability of alternative emergency transportation options for the community like a taxpayer-funded hovercraft; the fact that snow or severe weather could make the road unpassable in an emergency; and, the undermining of bedrock environmental laws like the Wilderness Act that construction of the road would entail.

Red Fox kit near Outer Marker, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (Kristine Sowl, USFWS)

In 2009, legislation passed that required the Department of the Interior to study the impacts of building the road, and following four years of extensive study, Interior found that construction of the road would have particularly negative impacts on the migratory birds that rely on the Izembek wilderness. Since there were other transportation options available to local communities that did not require road construction, Interior concluded that the road was not in the public interest. In her statement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell wrote:

“After careful consideration, I support the Service’s [US Fish and Wildlife Service] conclusion that building a road through the Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the Refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it. Izembek is an extraordinary place – internationally recognized as vital to a rich diversity of species – and we owe it to future generations to think about long-term solutions that do not insert a road through the middle of this Refuge and designated wilderness. I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”

Black-billed Magpie  (Kristine Sowl, USFWS)

The state of Alaska sued over this decision, but that lawsuit was rejected in 2015.

Building a road through the Izembek Wilderness Area would set a dangerous precedent for designated Wilderness areas across the country, yet both the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would mandate construction of the road through the Izembek Wilderness Area. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representative Don Young (R-AK) have introduced legislation in the Senate and House respectively, to build the road, including attempting to attach it to must-pass legislation required to keep the government funded.

The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Representative Young’s legislation – H.R. 218, the “King Cove Road Land Exchange Act” – on April 5, and tempers ran high. Ranking Member Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) attempted to submit a letter from National Wildlife Refuge Friends organizations opposing the road for the official hearing record – a routine process – yet Rep. Young interrupted his colleague and went on to accuse those who oppose the road as valuing the lives of birds over people. Ignoring the facts on the ground, Rep. Young tried to push his viewpoint using volume instead of reason.

A volcano along the Ring of Fire, as seen from Grant Point in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (Lisa Matlock)

Looking forward, on June 27th, the House Natural Resources Committee will vote on H.R. 218, the “King Cove Road Land Exchange Act,” which would remove the biological heart of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge from federal public ownership to construct a destructive road through the refuge. Izembek legislation will then likely come to a full vote on the House floor.

Perhaps a more likely scenario is that the legislation would find its way into various must-pass pieces of legislation needed to keep the government open, to keep our public lands protected, or to provide funds for repairing America’s infrastructure. Rep. Young will likely try to bully his proposal through. We must make sure that members of Congress know the real facts: building a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is unnecessary, it is detrimental to wildlife, and it would undermine the laws that protect public lands across Alaska and the rest of America.