The Interior Department on Monday denied a proposal that would have enabled construction of a road through an Alaskan wildlife refuge aimed at aiding emergency medical evacuations, an issue that dogged the beginning of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's confirmation process.
Jewell confirmed an earlier finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that said a land swap between the state of Alaska and the federal government to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge would harm the ecosystem, which is home to waterfowl, caribou, grizzly bear and salmon.
"[A] road through the refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the refuge itself, but to the wildlife that depend on it," Jewell said, adding that the land the refuge would surrender had irreplaceably unique characteristics.
The proposal, which had been under review for four years, became a hot button issue in February when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, threatened to block Jewell's confirmation until outgoing Interior chief Ken Salazar resolved the dispute.
Supporters in King Cove, Alaska, say the 10-mile stretch of road would significantly alleviate transportation complications residents must endure to reach nearby Cold Bay's all-weather airport.
Noting that, the Interior Department vowed to evaluate other options to "improve access to affordable transportation and health care for the citizens of this remote Alaska community."
Wildlife advocates cheered the decision, noting that the refuge serves as a vital habitat for several species — including nearly the entire world population of the Pacific black brant, a subspecies of the brant goose.
“We applaud Secretary Jewell’s strong stand to protect Izembek’s wilderness and its unmatched wildlife habitat from the damaging impacts of the proposed road,” said conservation biologist Kiersten Lippmann of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Clearly, building a road through this remote and ecologically critical area was not in the public interest.”