JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A day after the Biden administration approved a major Alaska oil project, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland waded into another thorny battle in the state — a long-simmering dispute over building a road through a national wildlife refuge to provide health care access for a remote, and largely Indigenous, community.
Building the road would involve a contentious land exchange, and after Haaland visited King Cove a year ago, she told reporters she was “in a learning process” regarding the issue. On Tuesday, she withdrew a 2019 agreement finalized during the Trump administration that has been the subject of ongoing litigation, citing a lack of public participation and environmental review. She also expressed concerns about impacts on subsistence uses and wildlife.
“I believe deeply in the need to protect our lands and waters and honor our obligations to Tribal Nations. Respecting Tribal sovereignty means ensuring that we are listening – really listening – to Tribal communities,” Haaland said in a statement, saying she is a “lifelong conservationist.”
She said she has instructed her team to begin a process to review prior land exchange proposals, with consultation, conservation and subsistence goals in mind.
The road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has been a priority for Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both of whom crossed party lines to confirm Haaland’s nomination as Interior Secretary and were vocal in seeking approval of the Willow oil project. Sullivan denounced Haaland’s decision Tuesday as a delay tactic.
The oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is the largest in Alaska in years and angered environmentalists who see it as flying in the face of President Joe Biden’s climate goals. Trustees for Alaska, which is representing conservation groups that challenged the Trump-era land exchange, filed