A week of mixed messages in Alaska

Mar 15, 2023

On Tuesday, the Biden administration revoked a land-exchange deal made during the Trump administration that would have allowed a road to be built through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the department would begin a new process to review previous land exchange proposals, leaving the door open for another land exchange—and another road proposal—in the future. Road proponents argue a road is necessary to connect the remote community of King Cove to an airport, hospital care, and other services; the proposed road would also impact undisturbed tundra and wetlands and fragment important wildlife habitat. “The debate around approving the construction of a road to connect the people of King Cove to life-saving resources has created a false choice, seeded over many years, between valuing conservation and wildlife or upholding our commitments to Indigenous communities. I reject that binary choice,” Haaland said.

The move follows an announcement on Sunday that the administration is withdrawing 2.8 million acres in the Beaufort Sea, putting the Arctic Ocean off-limits to new leasing when combined with previous protections. The administration also announced that it is initiating a rulemaking process to protect 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska from future oil and gas leasing. This proposed rule, along with others such as those to implement reforms to the oil and gas program, must be released by April of this year if the administration hopes to avoid having the final rule overturned by the Congressional Review Act.

These important actions should have been unequivocal conservation wins for the administration. However, the administration also approved the controversial Willow oil and gas project, breaking a promise Biden had made during his presidential campaign. Already the decision is drawing legal challenges. Trustees for Alaska, which successfully sued to block approval of the project in 2020, during the Trump administration, is representing a coalition of organizations that filed suit on Tuesday, alleging that the federal government’s analyses supporting the project’s approval were flawed. Other lawsuits are likely to follow.

Also this week, at a fundraising event in California, Biden said, “Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are either going to live lives that are decent and honorable and good, or they’re going to be in real trouble. If we go to about 1.5 degrees centigrade above where we are now, we’re done; there’s no way to turn it around.” In an interview on The Daily Show that aired Monday evening, Biden saidIf we don’t keep the temperature from going above 1.5 degrees Celsius raised, then we’re in real trouble.” The approval of the Willow project, a ‘carbon bomb’ projected to produce up to 287 million metric tons of carbon pollution, is inconsistent with keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Biden also visited Las Vegas this week but did not take advantage of the opportunity to make good on his promise, made over 100 days ago, to designate Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument, despite initial reports that a designation was planned to take place during the visit.

Quick hits

Biden administration revokes Izembek land exchange deal

New York Times | Washington Post | E&E News | Associated Press | New York Times [opinion]

Willow approval draws legal challenges, complicates Biden’s legacy

Politico | Vox | New Yorker | E&E News | The Guardian | CNN | Reuters | High Country News

Black Wall Street community lobbies Congress for a national monument

Black Wall Street Times

Groups sue to block approval of controversial access road through White River National Forest

RealVail | Colorado Sun | Vail Daily

Tons of radioactive waste shipped to Utah mill next to Tribal community


Nevada considers allowing water agency to limit residential water use

Los Angeles Times | Washington Post

Colorado’s healthy snowpack may offer some relief for strained water supplies

Colorado Sun

Opinion: The government is this close to reining in some of the worst air pollution

New York Times

Quote of the day

”[The Willow project approval] is a grievous mistake. It greenlights a carbon bomb, sets back the climate fight and emboldens an industry hell-bent on destroying the planet.”

—Christy Goldfuss, Natural Resources Defense Council Chief Policy Impact Officer, E&E News

Picture this

A pika sitting on a rock

Bandelier National Monument provides excellent insights into how mountain-dwelling species such as American Pika (Ochotona princeps) may fare amidst ongoing global change. On the one hand, Bandelier’s position within the larger Rocky Mountains suggests that populations will generally be stable. This is due to the diversity of habitats available & the possibility of natural repopulation from other connected high-elevation areas should any local-level die-off occur. On the other hand, Bandelier is at the southern border of many species’ geographic ranges, & in recent years, population losses have been more significant at this boundary.

For the last few years, Bandelier has benefited from ongoing research funded by the Western National Parks & Monuments Association & under the guidance of Dr. Erik Beever, U.S. Geological Survey at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center. Bandelier’s pika-occupied patches represent some of the very lowest elevations at which pikas currently occur in New Mexico. Wildlife managers state-wide are interested in how pikas have survived here. Upcoming work will investigate the influence of fire & livestock grazing on pika occupancy and abundance. Comparing Bandelier results with research on pikas from across northern New Mexico identifies patterns of resilience & vulnerability across broader landscapes, allowing prioritization of future conservation & management attention.

Very few American Pika have survived within Bandelier, & their continued occupation within the park is very uncertain. What we learn by studying pika here could help land management agencies determine how to protect other mountain-dwelling species also at risk & hopefully, this enhanced knowledge will allow us to keep this cute little fur ball on any updated mammal list for the park.

(featured image: Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Lisa Hupp/US Fish & Wildlife Service)